Steve Apter is a rare breed. The 46-year-old is the first person ever to become chief of the Isle of Wight Fire and Rescue Service having moved through the ranks from a retained fire fighter.
Now Steve has just completed his first year as the boss, and accepts it has been a difficult and challenging 12-month period. Tough decisions have had to be made, but he has met the challenges head on, and dealt with them accordingly. He smiled: “It has been an enjoyable, but fairly frantic first year with great support from the Service and colleagues in the Council.”
Although Steve is in charge of the smallest Fire and Rescue Service in the UK, he sees no reason why it cannot be the best. Massive strides have already been made towards achieving that goal, but at the same time he has never forgotten his roots, and much prefers the amicable approach rather than the uncompromising one.
He is only too aware that one of the greatest strengths of the Fire and Rescue Service is its ability to adapt, because no one knows what is going to be thrown up next. It could be a major fire; a serious road traffic accident or as so often has happened this summer, helping flood victims.
“We have a very close team and they are a bit special. I think fire fighters are a breed apart. Having started as a retained fire fighter I was recently at an event with some operational fire fighters,” he recalled. “I asked them how they thought the past 12 months had gone and they told me ‘the day you stop acting the way we know you is the day we know you have gone too far’. It was a reality check and I wouldn’t want that to change. Just because difficult decisions have to be made, doesn’t mean I have to compromise my values.”
“Someone once said that the two best jobs in the Fire Service are being a fire fighter and the chief. Having now done both jobs I can support that statement. Even when you move up the ranks you are still part of the team and a fire fighter at heart.
“But it is about leadership, and style. We can maintain the camaraderie without me having to disassociate myself from the team. It’s about personal leadership style, and I think I would have been told by enough people if I had gone too far.”
Indeed family man Steve is often reminded of that fact when at home. He said: If I ever do the discipline thing there, my five-year-old son Elliot is quick to tell me ‘daddy, you are not the chief at home’! Elliot, along with daughters Nina and Lucia, keep me grounded.”
Steve, who hails from Liverpool, joined the IW Fire Service 22 years ago, and immediately fell in love with it. He recalls how his predecessor Paul Street once told him off for smiling too much. His response was: “It is because I am enjoying myself.”
He modestly claims he has been in the right place at the right time, saying: “I didn’t have any great career plan. I just had great days as a fire fighter, and was lucky to have good people around me who inspired me to get on.”
He has been involved in big changes over the past 12 months, including the switch of 999 emergency calls to Surrey Fire Service, rather than being handled locally. He reflects: “It was a difficult time for many people, but it was the right thing to do.”
He has also overseen the return of the IW Fire Service HQ to the old Fire Station in Newport opposite Morrison’s, after an £8million new build was scrapped. Instead the old building was given a £220,000 makeover, and he and his fire fighters are rightly proud of what has been achieved.
The majority of the operational staff on the Island are retained fire fighters, 179 in all. Then at Newport there are 40 fire fighters on a watch system, and at Ryde there are a further 18, plus officers working in specialist roles.
There are 12 fire engines across the Island, as well as a range of specialist vehicles. There is also an excellent range of new fire kit including breathing apparatus, ensuring the Island fire fighters are protected as well as they possibly can be.
Steve continued: “My theme through the first 12 months is that we are in a profession so we have had to be professional in our approach – the way we are equipped, trained and the way in which we deliver the service. Just because we are the smallest Service in the country, doesn’t mean we cannot be the best. We want to be excellent, and I don’t feel embarrassed in saying that.
“We don’t like to blow our own trumpets, but I still think it is important we recognise our successes in the work we do. If the crews were silent on me I would know there was something wrong. The fact is everyone is getting involved and is interested in where we go next.”
Clearly there is much more to being a fire fighter than putting out the occasional blaze. The Service works closely with the community in many aspects; has had to deal with the recent worrying spate of fatal road accidents, and plays a key role in major Island events that attract large numbers of people and increase the risks – including the Festival, the Bestival and Cowes Week. He continued: “So it is a more diverse range of issues, even down to an increase in flooding incidents, grass fires and the like. But one of the most significant changes is that in the past the Fire Service worked very much in isolation, but we don’t operate like that today.
“We work with a range of partners, from blue light colleagues, organisations within the council, voluntary sector, health authorities to identify the risk and meet the risk needs. I believe we have delivered an outstanding operational service, and are getting far better at targeting our community safety for the most vulnerable.”
As for the next 12 months, and beyond, the economic picture is unclear, but one thing is certain – it is not going to improve. Steve added: “The bottom line is that the community still demand an excellent emergency response which we need to be able to deliver. But the demand on the Fire Service always increases during the economic downturn so we need to be geared for that.”