David Hails underwent what he described as a “baptism by fire” this week during an unannounced visit to the Cayman Islands, where he was introduced as the new chief fire officer.
Meeting with a small group of fire officers at West Bay Fire Station on Wednesday, Mr. Hails – a decorated veteran of the U.K.’s fire and rescue service who has trained many Caymanian firefighters over the years – said he would not be successful without the backing of the rank-and-file.
“I can’t do it without your support,” Mr. Hails told about a half-dozen fire officers gathered in the break room. “All politics aside, we need to remember what we’re here for, and that is to save lives and protect the community.”
Mr. Hails, 56, just off eight years with Serco International Fire Training Centre, told the Cayman Compass he intends to work to dispel the image that local fire crews “sit around and play backgammon all day.”
“I want to promote the Cayman Islands to the Premiership [referring to the top division of English football] of firefighting,” he said.
Mr. Hails said he became interested in Cayman after speaking with a few local firefighters who had come to the center for training courses.
He said Wednesday that he views Cayman as “a good challenge” and promised the fire officers that recruiting in the department would not be “skewed” in favor of “his friends” as he had heard some firefighters allege in his first meeting with them Monday.
Mr. Hails said he was not even certain at this point if he would bring his family – including two high school age children – to Cayman with him because he did not want to interrupt their studies in the U.K.
He will leave Friday to finish out his current posting in the United Arab Emirates and will not return to Cayman to take up the post until February. However, Mr. Hails said he has identified some areas where some work is needed.
The first item Mr. Hails intends to conduct is a training “needs assessment,” basically indicating where firefighters’ skills need to improve and where overall firefighting techniques need an upgrade.
One of the things that goes along with such an assessment is risk management, he said.
“You have to look at all of your buildings in the fire code, ask what would we require to put a fire here out, and assess each area,” Mr. Hails said.
Generally speaking, Mr. Hails said it is critical for firefighters to have an idea of what they are facing when they go into a building where pathways are obscured by smoke, and he wants to ensure this is done to protect them.
Risk management was one of the areas Mr. Hails was quizzed on by West Bay firefighters Wednesday.
Another major focus initially for Mr. Hails will be improving fire service response times.
Currently, there are three main fire stations on Grand Cayman – at Owen Roberts Airport, in Frank Sound and in West Bay. Mr. Hails said he spent part of the day Tuesday timing a “run” from the Frank Sound station in North Side to Bodden Town, Savannah and George Town.
Response times will be key to determining whether there should be a new fire station built in Bodden Town, as was suggested in a fire service consultant report earlier this year, he said.
Also, Mr. Hails said the types of vehicles used to respond to incidents by fire crews are important in ensuring a speedy emergency response.
“The [current] fire vehicles are good, in fact, they’re very large,” he said. “Now, some of the roads in this area [referring to West Bay] … it’s going to be difficult to get to the fires.”
That’s not to say West Bay Fire Station does not need the large ladder truck it currently houses, Mr. Hails said.
“Just down the road … you’ve got the new hotel that’s going up,” he said. “This station is going to be the first in attendance to Seven Mile Beach where all the hotels are.”
Computer aided dispatch
The fire service consultant report released earlier this year noted that emergency calls to the Cayman Islands Fire Service were being unacceptably delayed by the department’s system for handling calls.
When a call for fire service is received by the 911 center, it is passed to the fire service control room at the airport fire station. The call is logged by hand and then the nearest fire station is mobilized to answer the call.
For some reason, the fire service does not use the 911 computer-aided dispatch system, as do the local police and ambulance services. “We’ve had in-depth discussions about that,” Mr. Hails said, declining to comment further on the matter.
Firefighters will be given a daily work schedule, which includes a number of tasks, such as vehicle maintenance, daily training, community services and inspections and the like.
“It will be spelled out for them on a daily basis,” Mr. Hails said.
One staffing issue Mr. Hails said he noticed immediately was that fire crews typically number three officers per shift at each fire station. In West Bay, that means there are three officers and three fire trucks in the station.
“There’s a truck for each of you to drive!” Mr. Hails joked with the West Bay station staff Wednesday.
In reality, that is not an ideal situation, he said. Typically, larger trucks require three or even four firefighters aboard. If a smaller number is required at an emergency scene, a smaller vehicle is used.