Keith Sillitoe – the fire safety fanatic
Jane McGuire

Keith Sillitoe – the fire safety fanatic

Keith Sillitoe the fire safety fanatic

First published date July 10 2015 Amended date March 24 2016

Keith Sillitoe is every part the fire safety expert. Joining the London Fire Brigade in 1970, Keith was an operational fireman during the IRA bombing campaign, the Moorgate tube crash and the Kings Cross fire. Following this, he was the original founder member of the Fire Protection Association and now works as a senior lecturer for the British Safety Council. ‘I sound ever so old don’t I?’ he asks me, as we catch up on a sunny Friday morning in London. Modest, passionate and utterly inspiring, it soon became clear that this is far more than just a career for Keith. A man who has convinced me that learning fire safety is anything but dull, if you need that final push to book your course, have a read of this.


So Keith, tell me how you got here?

So I joined the London fire brigade back in 1970 and worked my way up to be Head of Fire Safety. Sadly we had two fire fighters killed in 1992 for the first time in ten years, one in Gillender Street and the other at Villiers Row. For the first time in history the fire brigade had two improvement notices served by the HSE, so I became involved in getting these removed within a twelve-month period. We had to make some changes to the way we commanded and controlled strategies on the ground, to communication, breathing apparatus procedures and fire-fighter safety in operational circumstances. That was a very interesting year for me and is how I became involved with occupational health and safety as well as fire safety. I was also the original founder member of the Fire Protection Association – I sound ever so old don’t I?


Not at all! So what is a typical day like for you?

Well I’m the lead tutor to the British Safety Council, so I train students on the NEBOSH fire safety and risk management qualification, and the Level 2 fire risk assessment training workshops. I am also the specialist advisor, so if any companies have specific fire safety concerns to do with design, building regulations, occupancy levels, automatic fire detect systems etcetera, I give technical advice in regards to British standards for automatic fire detection. 


Is it quite a rewarding job?

Yes it is actually. I wouldn’t have chosen health and safety – it seemed to choose me. As I say, I joined the fire services as an operational fireman, squirting hoses and running up and down ladders in central London which was wonderful, when I look back, it was terrific to be involved in that. This was all before the health and safety work act in 1974, so it was quite a risky business, not wearing breathing apparatus and jumping through windows to rescue people, but it was really fantastic. I was very fortunate to have chosen that as a career, but I decided to do some academic qualifications at the fire service college in Morton-in-Marsh. I’ve had a great variety and nowadays I do something different everyday; fire safety throws up complex problems in any organisation depending on what they do.


What are the main changes in fire safety that you have seen over your career?

The changes are phenomenal; back in 1999 the old process of fire certification was replaced, since then it has been down to the employer or duty holder to take relevant steps for fire risk assessment. Lots of employers get nervous about this, particularly if they’ve got sleeping risks. If you are a hotel owner, a boarding house or a bed and breakfast somewhere, clearly if there is a fire and people don’t manage to escape safely, the likelihood is there might be some manslaughter prosecutions. So it’s a very high burden of responsibility really.

Also in recent years there has been massive developments in fire engineering; in the UK we are now very good at designing buildings so people are guaranteed to be safe. For example the intensive care unit at Guy’s Hospital, on the 19th floor of Guy’s Tower, if there is a fire or a bomb they don’t evacuate. We’ve constructed the building and ventilation system to ensure they can stay in there for long periods, because evacuating the intensive treatment unit would kill the occupants anyway. The technical bit is my baby really.


Why is it so important for people to go on fire safety courses?

Clearly with fire the killer is carbon monoxide, you only need a good couple of lungfuls and you will suffer hypoxia, which leads to death in about four minutes. So fire is a unique killer really because people can die very quickly. People need to be aware that they have the right level of protection. If you look at any building – the more people inside, the higher the occupancy levels and the longer it will take to evacuate. You can get 40 people a minute through a single width exit door, so if you double the occupancy of a building it will take twice as long for them all to evacuate, so you need to engineer the outcome.


Looking back on your career, what are the most common things people do wrong?

Good question, I would say in this day and age its overloaded plug sockets. Lots of people now will plug adaptors into electrical sockets. If you overload a power socket which normally has 13 amps flowing through it, it will overheat and the fuse won’t always blow. A lot of power sockets are hidden behind sofas and refrigerators, so you won’t know it’s getting hot. It will gather dust, maybe a bit of paper – once you get an ignition source the fire will start. So I’d say overloaded electrical sockets. Sadly arson is very much on the increase – I think lots of people recklessly don’t understand how dangerous fire can be and how quickly it can kill.


Finally then, what is the most difficult part of keeping London safe in the 21st century?

Now I suppose it’s applying the technical – making sure people are aware that fire risk assessment is fairly technical. That you need to look at the whole aspect of a building – its construction, its occupancy, the travel distances people have, the risks people may face. Fire risk assessment needs to be a live process so that we know in the event of a fire we can evacuate people and have control strategies for minimising fire spread. We’ve got a booming population, a huge construction industry, so with overcrowding and bigger buildings, the complexity of safe evacuation is likely to be a huge issue for us in the 21st century. Sorry does that sound a bit profound?


No, not at all! Thanks Keith!


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