A Stirling job!

Published:  29 November, 2013

The challenges of setting up industrial fire brigades in high-risk locations such as Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan: exclusive interview with Kevan Whitehead of Stirling Group.

At the beginning of 2013 ex-Greater Manchester firefighter (retired) Kevan Whitehead joined security services specialist Olive Group to assist the company in diversifying its portfolio to include fire and rescue services in difficult environments. The recent purchase of Stirling Group by Olive means Whitehead is now actively focussing on the oil and gas industry in areas such as Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and Algeria. He talks to Industrial Fire Journal about his work and some of the challenges he faces on a daily basis, which range from providing a single fire instructor or inspector to a full private fire brigade of 60 firefighters embedded in a concession.

Where did you start?

Our initial focus was Iraq, primarily oil and gas because that sector needs fire and rescue equipment and manpower which they can trust

On the equipment side our first activity was to become a distributor for the whole of Iraq for Dräger Safety Products – for example BA, personal gas detection monitors, and other equipment essential to oil and gas. One of the by-products of oil and gas extraction is hydrogen sulphide (H2S), which is highly toxic, so it is imperative that oil and gas companies have personal gas monitors – the modern version of the canary, but much more sophisticated.

To support that activity we are installing workshops in Basra [Southern Iraq] and Irbil [Kurdistan Region of Northern Iraq], with technicians trained and qualified by Dräger. These are expats [expatriates, overseas workers] at the moment, but our intention is to recruit apprentices from Iraq and train them to be self-sufficient.

The next step will be to set up workshops within the sites of international oil companies purely for their use, but manned by our technicians. That means that there will be people there 24/7 servicing H2S detectors – both personal and fixed – as well as BA, compressors etc. To have a fail-safe solution there on site is an attractive option for oil and gas companies.

How do you find firefighter recruits?

In Iraq we run an intensive assessment centre and look at physical attributes as well as educational standards of recruits. We undertake intense fitness and medical tests, as well as criminal record checks.

We are also mindful that by recruiting from particular villages or towns we are supporting the local community. Iraq is troubled by sectarian violence so it is important we manage the recruitment sensitively so we end up with a workforce that can work together.

Initially we envisage a local force managed by expats – but the intention is over a three-year period the expat is replaced by local firefighters that have shown potential for development. I think that is very positive – it supports the rebuilding of Iraq and I believe its something to be proud of.

Is all training carried out in-house?

We are looking to partner with recognised organisations around the world. In some circumstances the training has to take place in the country, and then we will recruit instructors ad hoc and set them up in a facility locally.

It is our intention within a short space of time to set up two training centres, one in Basra and one in the north in Irbil, and partner with educational establishments to use their course materials and quality assurance qualifications.

What minimum seniority do you look for in expats?

We have tended to go for around station commander level. I need people with hands-on experience because of the system they would be working in – 28 days on duty in Iraq, 28 days off – and those days are 24/7. Working away from home in a challenging environment is not suitable for everyone and it helps if they have done it before. I am in dialogue with people from Canada, US, South Africa, Philippines, and UK.

The difficulty is finding people with an oil and gas background. The North East of England and Scotland provide a good ‘gene pool’ because they are used to the gas industry.

What are you working on at the moment?

We recently won a contract with Russian company Gazprom Neft to train and manage a fire service for their concession in Badra (see below - the Stirling Gazprom fire team).

In Al Kut, the closest city to Badra, we advertised in local newspapers and radio and had close to 800 applicants, which we narrowed down to a long list of 300. We ran the assessment and are in the process of putting 80 for the final process of criminal record checks, after which we will begin applying for visas to send them to the UK for 12-week training at the Fire Service College in Moreton on Marsh.

Badra oil field is currently a construction site and a functioning fire brigade needs to be in place ready for the site start up, which will probably be in March 2014.

What is the general level of fire awareness and emergency response in industrial brigades in these areas?

I have been on many concessions in Iraq, and Gazprom Neft is one of the best I have been on from a perspective of standards of engineering, security, health and safety, and PPE. Many other concessions cut corners with poor decision-making and poor management.

Industrial fire teams are generally of a poor standard, particularly on the equipment side. What normally happens is the oil and gas company will put out a tender, which is then picked up by 100 traders who don’t actually know what it means. They use Google and find companies that – for example – make BA, and all they want to do is buy it, put a margin on it, and sell it on. They have no product knowledge, no after-sales back-up, no training. We don’t want to operate that way. We have good product knowledge as well as technical officers who understand the product. We can deliver it, calibrate it, train the end users – and if something breaks we’ll come and fix it.

It makes sense to be focussed on health and safety because it supports the business. Nobody wants production to stop due to accidents caused by a poor safety record.

While sitting through a recent sales meeting, I had the privilege of hearing a classic quote which I since found out is also called the Common Law of Business Balance. It is by a gentleman called John Ruskin. “There is hardly anything in the world that someone cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price alone are that person’s lawful prey. It’s unwise to pay too much, but it’s worse to pay too little. When you pay too much, you lose a little money — that is all. When you pay too little, you sometimes lose everything, because the thing you bought was incapable of doing the thing it was bought to do. The common law of business balance prohibits paying a little and getting a lot — it can’t be done. If you deal with the lowest bidder, it is well to add something for the risk you run, and if you do that you will have enough to pay for something better.”

In business it is wise to heed these words as it is often easy to go for the cheaper option, when in reality it could cost more in the long run. Buying something which is expensive up front may well have the lower cost over its lifetime.

Is there a trend for outsourcing fire protection and response?

Every oil and gas company needs fire expertise. Up to now some have recruited on their own – but without the expertise – and we are now seeing a definite trend to outsourcing to organisations that do have the knowledge. This approach is more cost effective and gets rid of the headache of focussing on a non-core activity.

So what is next?

We are very busy! We are working up a good strong presence in Algeria where we have a contract with Indonesian company Pertomina. We have also opened offices in Kenya for our east African operations in Tanzania, Mozambique and Kenya.

This article will also be appearing in the next issue of Industrial Fire Journal (Winter, Q4, 2013).

  • Operation Florian

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