This is the first of three discussions with Roger Estall who is a role model for all those who aspire to a leadership role in risk management. Part I focuses on Roger’s extraordinary background and experience from working more than 40 years with a wide range of organizations on how to make decisions, manage uncertainty, and solve problems
Please share a little bit about your background and studies, and how your career evolved over time.
My career is an illustration of the expression that one thing leads to another and that there is nothing that one learns that won’t one day be useful. For example, I could have never imagined that one day I would head and drive major reform in New Zealand’s fire services. There just is no substitute for experiential learning.
Unlike many friends and acquaintances, I did not follow a master plan for my life. I could not have anticipated in any way, the amazing turns my career would follow. Much of what I learned was experiential rather than academic but at least as valuable. Many opportunities arose unexpectedly, and I had the good sense to take them without worrying too much about where they might lead.
I benefited from my father, who in my early years, would explain to me how all manner of things worked and who, as a mountaineer and inveterate traveler stimulated an interest in skiing and travel (at one stage I was flying about 100 domestic flights and nearly 150,000 miles internationally every year – even to the Straits of Magellan in the south of Chile). My mother epitomized kindness and courage in the face of adversity – qualities that I hope I have reflected. I grew up with three sisters but no brothers and thus was accustomed to thinking things through in my own head for myself.
While at high school, I joined the Boys Brigade (similar to the Boy Scouts) and became very interested and excelled in one of their competencies called firemanship. Little did I know that this fledgling interest would provide the thread from which much of my future studies, work and life would be woven.
On completing high school, I secured a scholarship to train as a high school teacher, attending university in my hometown, Christchurch in New Zealand, to study chemistry and geography. Yet my fledgling interest in firefighting and fire engineering continued to evolve.
In those days, fire engineering could not be studied in any New Zealand universities (something which 25 years later, I would help remedy with the establishment of a Masters in Fire Engineering at the University of Canterbury). So instead, I discontinued my science studies after my first year and joined the fire department in my hometown as a full-time firefighter.
But after two years as a firefighter, having gained a first-hand practical understanding about fire and fire behaviour, I found myself frustrated by what I saw as the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of contemporary fire-fighting practice and fire brigade management, so I resigned and resumed my science and teaching studies.
In this period however, I also became very interested in snow skiing, joining the university’s ski club which had just built an architect-designed 30 bed accommodation lodge on its ski field high in New Zealand’s magnificent Southern Alps. The lodge looked directly at a mountain on which years earlier, my father had pioneered a new route and almost lost his life. (Access to the ski area was by walking track with a 1500 ft climb!). On my first visit, I was appalled by the unsafe fire design of the building which, although built for 30, it being the promiscuous sixties, would often have double that number, which only made things worse!
So, to improve fire safety of the lodge, I got myself involved in the club’s management, learning a lot about building maintenance, water supplies, mechanical equipment (the field had to generate its own electricity and had diesel engines that powered the rope-tow ski lifts) and even ski patrol. I honed skills in organizing things which I first learned at school through enthusiastic participation in extra-curricular activities such as the school cadet battalion, backstage roles in school theatre etc., to the extent of being awarded a special prize for outstanding service to the school.
Once on the club’s management committee, I helped set up a ski-hire operation to raise revenue and encourage new members who could not afford their own equipment, learned about budgeting and finances from some of my accounting colleagues, and developed a marketing plan to increase occupancy in the summer months including introducing spring-snow skiing after November exams (we’d put our watches on Hawaii time to enjoy the early morning firm snow) – all skills that would later unexpectedly prove invaluable in my career. I also acted as ‘ski school controller’ with responsibility for organizing the coaching, victualling and finances for the very popular three weeklong ski schools that took place each year during university vacation.
Introduction to standards
As a member of the club’s management committee, I became concerned about the safety of the long rope-tows which skiers attached themselves to via a nutcracker clamp and connected by cord to a belt worn around the waist, to be pulled up the steep field for about 1,000 vertical feet, with the rope passing over intermediate pulleys on poles. Unfortunately, if the pulleys were even a little misaligned, spin would build up in the rope behind the clamp such that, when the skier released at the top of the field, the rapid spin could seize loose scarves or even long hair and drag the helpless skier up the field and into the return pulley, occasionally causing serious injuries. In time, I was convinced that the rudimentary safety devices intended to quickly stop the tow, would not work in practice.
There were in fact several club fields that operated very much like ours and I found that the problem of tow safety was a shared concern that had not been resolved. Using my new position as President of our club, I persuaded the District Ski Association to which all clubs belonged that it should develop and publish a voluntary rope-tow safety standard that would be supported by an inspection and auditing service provided by the Association, as this was an issue not covered by the law of the land.
I formed a small committee to prepare the standard and, adapting reliability concepts used in fire alarm system technology, developed and codified more sensitive emergency stopping systems that would halt the tow within a meter. Little did I know that this standard would be just the first of over 25 standards I would be involved in during my career as either chair or member of the drafting committee. Those standards covered subjects as diverse as building codes, paramedical services, aviation firefighting, fire sprinkler systems, and “risk management.”
Standards-writing – particularly those that gain the status of tertiary law through citing in legislation - is something of an acquired taste. Standards are developed on a consensus basis with input from stakeholders at the draft stage. Finding a form of words to resolve valid concerns is a key aspect of the process. This can be quite challenging during the cut and thrust of debate during drafting meetings. Good standards also require structure, coherency, technical validity, and careful and unambiguous use of language – something familiar to some types of lawyers but often less so for other professionals.
In this, I was assisted by another chance experience from my university years. Naturally, my landlord sued me when I refused to pay his exorbitant rents. Outraged by the landlord’s actions, I decided to defend the suit without recourse to an attorney due to the costs involved. I ultimately lost on a procedural technicality that was partly the fault of the plaintiff, but a kindly judge saw that I had right (and youthful naivety) on my side and awarded me costs that almost matched the amount of the claim, so, wiser for the experience, I abandoned my defence and paid the small difference!
This little life experience – and rooming with four law students - sparked my interest in law. At university I would even sneak into the occasional lecture in the law school! Later, when living in Wellington (the capital of New Zealand) I would sometimes sit in on cases before the Court of Appeal and be fascinated by the intellectual and technical argument. During the many visits I would later make to London, I would often take the opportunity of a spare morning to sit in on one of the trials at the Old Bailey.
This interest in the law also led to an appreciation of words and good writing. As an example, I enjoyed reading the wonderful judgements of the famous British jurist Lord Justice Denning.
Statutory law is, of course, the product of the political processes and so, while living in Wellington, I would visit and watch and learn about the proceedings of the NZ House of Representatives on my way home from my office some evenings. I was not to know that 20 years later, I would be appearing before a Parliamentary Committee in that very building, under the eye of a packed gallery and a bank of TV cameras and microphones as the political storms associated with the major life-saving and efficiency reforms of the NZ Fire Service that I introduced swirled about me.
When teaching science, math and geography for a year I sometimes took my classes on summer field trips in the weekends to study alpine flora, fauna, geomorphology, weather, and micro-climates at my club ski field. My urge to travel and ski abroad also grew strong.
s is the dream of many young New Zealanders, I took a year off to do what is called one’s OE (overseas experience) with a ski club mate. Our aim was to do as much skiing as we could in a year, with the meagre resources we each had at hand: an around-the-world air ticket and about $600 in cash!
Our first stop was California, where we immediately experienced the incredible kindness and generosity of Americans that has remained with me for my life. On hearing of our plans, a family we met by chance immediately loaned us a car for a couple of months which allowed us to get to Salt Lake City and team up with an old university friend. Shocked by the unfamiliar prices of lift tickets, accommodation and even beer, we could see our days there were numbered until our friend introduced us to one of his friends – a hotel manager at the Alta ski resort in the Wasatch Mountains. (Some say, Alta is the powder snow mecca of the world!)
The manager was friendly but had a problem – his water supply was failing, and he had a hotel full of guests. Remembering my own experience with installing a new water supply at my ski field back in New Zealand, and my knowledge of hydraulic calculation of pipework, out of interest I asked him a few questions about his supply which, I learned, came from a small dam a quarter mile into a long-abandoned silver mine.
This caused the hotel manager to ask if we could fix his water supply for him. Much to the derision of my (English Literature studies) mate, I’d insisted on taking my slide rule with me on our OE and so, with some quick calculations, I told the manager how the supply could be repaired. He asked if we wanted a job and whether we could start straight away. Trouble was, we had no work permits but the hotel manager said that if we would fix his water supply, we could stay as his guests for as long as we wished and ski on daily employee passes. Suddenly our looming accommodation and skiing problems were solved!
This left just the beer (which being Utah was probably better characterized as a diuretic, albeit about ten times the cost back home). Again, our skill sets built from experiential learning proved our salvation. Being the President and Club Captain of a university ski club, we had necessarily excelled in evening drinking races (8oz in 0.6seconds, timed electronically, as I recall!). On learning this, the local public bar at Alta would boost their revenue by featuring us as their guest international drinking team and reward us for demonstrations in, well …… beer! A further reminder that nothing learned is ever wasted.
Alta is an area in which the huge drops of powder snow make effective avalanche control essential and being in a forest park, this was done by resident rangers of the US Forest Service. The forest rangers had two methods of avalanche control. In good weather, they used targeted bombing from helicopters; in bad weather when visibility was poor, the rangers used fixed 150 mm howitzers that could blind-fire rounds into the many narrow chutes where snow accumulated. My home ski field was in a national park of which, as club President, I was an honorary ranger so we soon befriended the American forest rangers from whom I learnt a great deal about avalanche prediction, control and rescue – understandings which I would later draw on as an expert witness in the consent hearings for a major new ski field development near Queenstown, New Zealand.
Management and cooking!
On return from our OE in America, I decided against a return to teaching and instead took a job for a year as resident manager of our club ski field which included the task of improving revenue by better marketing of the ski field. Successful marketing requires a mix of skills - recognizing opportunities, product innovation and design, testing, advertising, and selling, together with continual improvement and recognizing and responding to market change. Those early experiences would also later serve me well in my consulting career. Another skill, picked up along the way, was cooking for many people, as would occur each evening in the ski club lodge. Somehow, when my ski field management contract ended and I began to consider a return to teaching in the coming year, someone asked me if I would like to locate to a remote airstrip in the uninhabited but spectacular Fiordland region of the South Island of New Zealand. This gig would be for a couple of months and my job was to cook for some explorational geologists and their helicopter pilot who were prospecting for copper (instead they found asbestos – just before its lethal properties were recognized!).
Our helicopter pilot was an American that had flown three tours in Vietnam. Moreover, he had experience in responding to wildfires that often took place during the summer months in Southern California. He would often take me along in his Bell Sioux (as in the TV series MASH) on supply flights to the geologists when working in the field. In short, the pilot taught me a lot about helicopters and their use in aerial fire attacks. Who would have known that years later, my eldest son would become the chief flying instructor for the Royal New Zealand Air Force’s helicopter squadron? And that our son would do his initial training on this make of helicopter (a Bell Sioux) or that I would later develop a standard for use of helicopters at wildfires!
Entry to the world of insurance
The accumulated value of this rather unusual and diverse set of skills and knowledge led to an unexpected job offer from the Insurance Council of New Zealand - the peak body for fire and general insurers. One of the services provided by the Council was expert technical evaluation of the adequacy of automatic fire protection systems (such as fire sprinklers) in insured property. Turning my back on teaching, while retaining the skills, I took the job which also allowed me to complete a diploma course in fire engineering by correspondence with the UK-based Institution of Fire Engineers, of which I would later become the President of the New Zealand Branch and one of the Institution’s few Honorary Fellows.
In time, I served as the Insurance Council’s Chief Technical Officer, representing it on numerous committees of the national standards body writing standards on fire equipment of various types. I also investigated significant fires, including what then was New Zealand’s largest ever industrial fire. This was at a meat processing plant that hadn’t appreciated that the nice white plastic wall liners it installed to meet EU hygiene regulations had appalling fire propagation properties. Insurers called it their million dollar a minute fire! Their combined loss was $21 million (1979) and it took only 20 minutes to spread the length of the large building.
From this investigative work, I came to appreciate the importance of establishing the timeline of fires - which in buildings, grow exponentially. Fifteen years later, when I was appointed by the Government as Chairman of the New Zealand Fire Service Commission, this understanding would strongly inform the major reforms which I devised and implemented to reduce accidental fire deaths and improve efficiency.
During my time at the Insurance Council, having become known to my regional Ski Association through my work on the rope tow standard, I was asked if I could help out one weekend by operating the timing equipment at a major ski race organized by the Association. Knowing little about ski racing, I read the rule book beforehand. While at the race, I was astonished at what I thought was the inefficiency of the overall organization of the race which seemed very unfair to the competitors. I tentatively raised my concerns with the Association’s officials and was promptly told “well if you can do better you take over.” So, enjoying a challenge and drawing on my organizing experience, I did!
I recruited a new team of officials who despite being volunteers, were committed to innovation and excellence. A boffin on my team built new timing and communications equipment. One thing led to another and within a couple of years, I found myself responsible for the conduct and funding of the entire national ski racing program, culminating in my appointment as Chef de Mission for the New Zealand team that competed at the XIIth Winter Olympic Games in Innsbruck, Austria.
The experiences I gained at the Olympics and associated with that, the World Cup circuit, persuaded me that New Zealand could host an international ski race and so with the help of many volunteers (all of this was on a voluntary part-time basis), the New Zealand army’s SAS (special forces) squadron (who agreed to help if we would teach their remarkable soldiers to ski – the one skill, I think, that they didn’t have) and the good citizens of the nearby farming town close to Mt Hutt (the large ski field that at the time had the best facilities and necessary vertical drop) we obtained approval from the international federation and hosted our first ‘FIS’ sanctioned race.
Usually, a new entrant to the international circuit would attract only a modest field of competitors and have a ‘points penalty’ of about 100 applied to the results but we had the advantage that our race was occurring during the northern summer where the big teams in Europe and North America were forced to either train on glacier snow or endure the then unstable political situation in Chile. As a result, New Zealand’s first FIS race attracted a stellar international field of competitors and thus had a points penalty of less than 5! (This race has endured and has remained attractive for foreign competitors due also to the support of the local farming community who would often invite them to go spotlight shooting of rabbits (a pest) from the back of a truck or jet boating on the nearby spectacular alpine river.)
All of this organization was carried out late at night after work and in the weekends in a spare bedroom of my home such that a friend would later say in an obituary about the sad death of my young wife “In the same way that the wife of the British Prime Minister Anthony Eden said at the time of the Suez Crisis there are days when I could have sworn that the Suez Canal flowed through our living room Roger’s wife Sally must have thought the same thing about the affairs of the NZ Ski Association.” Her support had been invaluable to me.
Introduction to insurance brokering
My career then took another abrupt turn when I accepted a position offered by New Zealand’s largest insurance broker (which later would become a subsidiary of Marsh) to, initially, take up the role of its Chief Fire Engineer in charge of its consulting group, of which I would later become an Executive Director. Here the task was to help the brokers explain to the insurance market the nature of the insured ‘risk’ (especially of large industrial sites) and also to help ‘insureds’ seeking to make their operations more attractive to insurers by reducing the likelihood and magnitude of property damage (PD) and the duration and cost of resulting business interruption (BI). Where the client decided on improvements, we would often project-manage that work, preparing the technical specifications, conducting tenders from suppliers, and checking the completed work.
Because many parts of New Zealand are seismically very active, it was also necessary to understand the exposure of clients to earthquake – from both a PD and BI perspective. Business interruption as a result of earthquake damage involves wider considerations than, say, interruption due to a fire as the latter is usually confined to just the property concerned leaving the public infrastructure and supply chains unaffected. As was to be demonstrated thirty years later, in the devastating earthquakes that struck Christchurch, New Zealand in 2010 and 2011, large magnitude events (especially when centered within a few km of the surface) can cause massive damage to utilities and create greater demand for repair and rebuilding than can be met by the normally available construction industry resources.
New Zealand has long been a global center of excellence for both understanding seismic hazard and developing innovative seismic engineering techniques to make structures and infrastructure less vulnerable to earthquake damage. The invention of layered steel and rubber bearings penetrated with lead cores on which a building or bridge is supported, is one example. In an earthquake, these bearings protect the structure by absorbing energy and allowing the ground to move independently of the structure.
Mindful of these advances, the Government commissioned Marsh & McLennan Companies (the global parent of Marsh) to conduct a review of the viability and ongoing suitability of a long-standing scheme of compulsory government-provided PD-only earthquake insurance scheme for all insured property (funded by a compulsory levy added to insurance premiums). I was a member of the multi-disciplinary review team. My specific focus was on estimating the expected cost of damage from ‘fire-following’ an earthquake centered on the capital city – generally regarded as having the greatest seismic exposure.
Working with the national earthquake research agency, I devised an innovative approach of geospatially distributing the statistical number of fires that a Californian researcher had postulated based on earthquake size (using the known magnitude of major earthquakes on the Wellington Fault that ran through the city) then allocating the available fire trucks using dispatch conventions, calculating the arrival time based on study of the integrity of bridges along the way, and then physically visiting every one of those locations to examine the characteristics of the building concerned, the terrain and proximity to other buildings and then postulating the fire size at that point in time.
After discounting the availability of the usual public water supply (due to earthquake vulnerability) we searched the area for swimming pools and other static sources of water that could be used and then, considering the actual equipment on the truck that had theoretically been dispatched (only some had portable pumps, for example) and its ability to influence fire spread, decided which building would have been destroyed (using standardized wind conditions). The government’s property valuation system on which property taxes are calculated was used to work out the total value of the ‘destroyed’ structures. What we found was that because of the nature of the NZ built environment the cost of fire damage would be less than 10% of total shock damage. We also found that the Fire Service had not developed a different operating mode where in circumstances such as this, only one truck could attend – for example, rather than working as the usual 4 person team, the 4 members of the crew acted as leaders and created and led four teams of citizens willing to help. Later, at the Fire Service Commission, I would address that very issue.
Ultimately, our review concluded that the compulsory system of earthquake insurance was inefficient, inflexible, and unfit for its intended purpose. We further determined that the commercial insurance market was capable of providing PD and BI cover according to individual need and recommended the government limit its involvement to a new compulsory scheme solely for private dwellings that would provide claimants with sufficient funds to build a small new functional dwelling with basic furnishings leaving owners (as well as the owners of all other types of buildings) to buy any additional insurance they required from the insurance market.
In this new setting, one of the challenges for our brokers was to help the international insurance market understand the nature of the risk that they would soon be encountering for New Zealand property, including the scientific and engineering advances – an even bigger challenge following a recent major M=6.5 earthquake that occurred in 1987 just before these changes. Stimulated by my old pedagogic instincts, I therefore encouraged Marsh to arrange a major seminar in London for 250 reinsurers. Before introducing our two main experts (a paleo seismologist and a seismic research engineer) my opening slide showed a photograph from that recent earthquake, of the fault trace (the surface crack) running across a farming property into the far distance. The trace, marked by a spectacular 2m uplift of the ground along the line of the fault passed within 25m of a farmhouse in the near view of the photo. I asked the audience to show by raised hand which was their dominant impression from that photo – the extraordinary power of nature (most hands) or the fact that despite that, the house was largely undamaged (some sheepish smiles). It was an introduction for them to the structural strength of typical New Zealand’s typically timber-framed housing – the very thing that they were insuring!
Over the years, the work with Marsh involved me in almost every imaginable sector - from defence, to manufacturing, mining, oil, gas and petro-chemicals, iron & steel, aviation, telecommunications and even education and prisons. It required me to be able to understand, at the most intimate level of detail, each of these diverse activities and the functioning of the sites involved, both from a technical viewpoint and the management approach.
Time and again, I would draw on elements of my life journey and diverse career to understand how these entities functioned. For example, one way to understand the processes of a complex pulp and paper mill is to apply two of the most basic of scientific laws – the laws of conservation of matter, and of conservation of energy which have the common theme that while the form of matter and energy can be changed, they cannot be created or destroyed. So, it is a case of finding out what went in (and where it came from and how it got there) and what went out as either product or waste and being able to account for the process along the way.
Because the insurances of high value sites invariably ended up in the global reinsurance markets – particularly in London, Europe and the US, the brokers would often ask me to accompany them on their visits to those markets to explain the insured ‘risk’ to the reinsurers and their engineers. There is an old saying that insurers instinctively fill the gaps in their knowledge with premium!
Appreciation of detail
Because insurance law is substantially based on the Latin principle uberrimae fides (utmost good faith), whereby each party must disclose to the other all that is relevant, accuracy was critical to the success of these submissions. So, in gathering information, it was important to take a forensic approach and to politely test what I was told. To have the desired effect, reports also had to be readable!
I would often find myself involved in the team acquiring new clients, to explain the diverse services provided by my ever-expanding consulting group which comprised engineers, lawyers and financial experts. My instinct was always to understand the client’s problem or need before working out how we could help them. This would sometimes frustrate some of my more junior broking colleagues who would just want me to describe our resources, but I would argue that such an approach amounted to saying: “this is the answer; now, fit your problem into that!”
I shifted to Sydney as the marketing manager for Marsh’s consulting group in Australia before, three years later, launching my own consultancy which I still have albeit that I am now substantially retired. I found myself doing interesting work in two new areas: aviation and the management of the potential for wildfires….. an occurrence that has always shaped the landscapes of many parts of Australia but which has become more challenging as the built environment has expanded into the Australian bush.
On the aviation front, I wrote and edited a video called Aeronautical Decision-Making, which the New Zealand aviation regulator sent to the 16,000 holders of some form of aviation license. What I learnt from an aviation psychologist while researching this was an enormous benefit when, with Grant Purdy, we embarked on writing our book Deciding. I also reviewed the usefulness and return on value of the very expensive crash fire services that are provided at airports throughout the world in accordance with internationally agreed doctrines that still reflected WWII paradigms. Statistical analysis of 64,000 aerodrome incidents, combined with intensive study of all global aerodrome crashes involving passenger aircraft and computational fluid dynamic examination of fire behaviour in fuel spill fires and cabin interior fires made clear that if there is a crash, it is the design of modern aircraft and crew training, and not the airport firefighting services, that determine the fate of passengers.
I discovered that type-approval of all new passenger aircraft requires a test to prove that, with half the exits blocked, half the contents of the luggage racks in the aisle, the full licensed passenger load must be able to evacuate, unassisted, in 90 seconds with only emergency lighting. This is a shorter period than it takes for a spill fire to burn through even the standard aluminum fuselage much less the more resistant composites of the likes of the Boeing Dreamliner. That is why those who survive a crash inevitably successfully self-evacuate before the crash trucks arrive.
In another project, I worked with a mathematician to test the assumptions behind quantitative modeling of the likelihood of midair collisions in controlled air space and the assumptions being used to determine whether the provision of control towers at regional aerodromes improves or degrades safety. These airports are typically multi-functional including at one airport I visited, serving as the forum for the greatest number of tandem parachute jumps in the world. The study provided a further illustration that too often (in a general sense) public studies preying on a gullible media can be misused for private economic gain rather than serving their intended purpose of producing solid evidence needed to drive regulatory change.
In relation to wildfires, I worked with several state agencies responsible for reducing the likelihood and severity of wildfires (usually called ‘bushfires’ in Australia). A common, although often due to green opposition, insufficiently frequent practice is to deliberately burn forests and grasslands during the cool months to reduce the fuel available in the lower storey to feed wildfires in summer. These ‘hazard reduction’ burns, which occur on a large scale ranging from a few hundred hectares in forest areas to a few hundred thousand hectares in the grasslands in northwest Australia, are carefully and professionally planned. Typically, this occurs over many months and even years. Nevertheless, occasionally these fires escape from their intended boundaries, for example due to unexpected wind shifts, planning weaknesses or operational errors, and cause damage beyond the intended burn areas. There is also the problem of the smoke generated causing both nuisance and, in wine growing areas, damage to fruiting vines.
Put simply, the challenge was to find ways to improve decision-making in the planning process to make the desired outcomes of these burns more likely and undesired outcomes, less likely. I found myself drawing on many of the skillsets I had acquired during my career and merging these with the deep expertise of those involved in these operations to give greater attention to the significance of assumptions, and also encouraging greater outwards focus on the land beyond the designated burn area and to things of value in the zone in which an escaped burn could spread.
One state decided to establish a new bushfire oversight agency and sought my assistance in defining its task and basis of operation. It was to be created administratively rather than by legislation, so I encouraged the adoption of a formal Charter under which - by agreement of the stake holding government agencies - it would operate.
Looking back on your career, what professional values or principles are most important to you and how did these values influence your work and career path?
In hindsight, I can recognize that there were some strong drivers that shaped my work. Those which I recognize as being most significant are as follows:
Thirst for the truth
My early involvement in the insurance industry introduced me to the Latin doctrine of uberrimae fides which unlike caveat emptor (i.e., ‘buyer beware’ which is typical of most contracts for goods and services) required that insurance negotiations be founded on ‘utmost good faith’ whereby both parties had an obligation to be honest and disclose all that is relevant to the other.
Although both doctrines have since suffered legislative dilution, this early exposure to uberimae fides created in me a strong imperative for accuracy: for getting things ‘right. Without wishing to sound arrogant, it has always mattered to me to be right for the simple reason, I guess, that it is embarrassing and of no benefit to be wrong. I also felt obliged to ensure that those to whom I was providing advice could be justified in having confidence in what I told them.
Trying to get it right is not easy (and not always successful!). Believing that one is right doesn’t make it so. Instead, what is needed is an inquiring mind, skepticism, research, real-world experience (to be able to differentiate between theory and human practice) constant self-testing of ideas, a heightened awareness of uncertainties, assumptions and of changes in context, and an alertness to weaknesses in one’s own arguments. It is essential to have an immediate willingness, enthusiasm, even, to change one’s position when encountering contradictory evidence, even if that means a 180 degree turn.
Often, of course, it’s necessary to seek agreement from others (for example, on standards writing committees) and so persuasiveness, debating skills, and an ability to express things clearly either orally or in writing are also important as is the use of examples of which my career has provided many! It would sometimes amuse me that I would be seen as inflexible on these committees when I would challenge or test dissenting views but what was often missed was the ease with which I would adopt those views whenever they revealed cracks in my own arguments.
My co-author Grant with whom I served on many standards-writing committees once said to another committee member who was grumbling that I was intractable “oh it’s easy to win an argument with Roger – you just have to be right.” The generous point he was making was that I truly believed in the concept of ‘best idea must win’ and that I welcomed rather than suffered challenge. We mention this in our book Deciding. Irrespective of whose idea it is, if it is better than mine, I would enthusiastically ditch mine and adopt theirs. Often in committee settings, I would use my experience in drafting words, to draft the necessary change to help give effect to the other person’s idea in the place of my own! This wasn’t altruism – it was a means to getting it right.
The value of plain language and first principles
I have written already of my affection from my formative years for lucidity and my attraction, therefore, to the judgements of great jurists and writers such as Sir Winston Churchill. (This has continued incidentally. Last year, with time on my hands, I read all 450+ pages of the majority judgement [as well as the dissenting judgement] of the 2-1 decision of the Court of Appeal of the Australian state of Victoria to dismiss an appeal against conviction of one of the Catholic church’s most senior cardinals for acts he was alleged to have perpetrated while an Archbishop in Australia. And I subsequently read the 140 plus pages of the judgement of Australia’s highest court which overturned the conviction [7-0].)
Lucidity is more than just the words used and it includes, for example, the organization of ideas, logic and even the structure of sentences. And for this reason, I have always admired plain language and shunned jargon. Aspiring to such goals does not come naturally to me and in the days before computers, I would often drive my typist crazy by constant re-writes in an endeavor to achieve clarity.
When you work in a technical field it should be anticipated that your audience will often not be familiar with either the related vocabulary or concepts. One should always, therefore, try to put oneself in the shoes of the audience and to strive to explain complex issues to those unfamiliar with them, in language and paradigms with which they are familiar.
An affection for plain words carrying their ordinary meaning is thus fundamental as is an instinct for trying to see things from first principles. In this lies the simple explanation of why ideas and jargon that are anchored by the word risk are so spectacularly unsuccessful and can never be successful. This is the reason, in our book Deciding, that Grant and I make the case for simply abandoning all use of the word risk.
The fatal flaw for the word risk is that there is no commonly shared or consistent understanding of its meaning. We have seen this lately during the Covid-19 pandemic as experts and politicians sought to explain and justify their decisions with frequent references to risk, despite using it inconsistently and even with contradictory meanings.
Such is the importance of communication that one of the things I would do when hiring new technical experts would be to give pen and paper to short-listed applicants and ask them to write a 30-minute paper to explain or argue one of a few nominated topics. It was surprising how often people with strong technical expertise would struggle on the lucidity front!
Being able to explain complex issues to a lay audience is also very relevant to the preparation of formal standards. For example, when Australia and New Zealand decided to publish an updated guideline on risk financing (the most familiar version of which is insurance), those of us doing the drafting challenged ourselves to avoid jargon and instead asked ourselves the question “if insurance is the answer, what is the problem it is solving?” and then wrote about that.
Labels are not knowledge
Committees who write standards often fool themselves by believing that the solution is to create new words or assign a special meaning for certain existing words (they call this, writing ‘definitions’) and list all those definitions in a special section. This is both lazy - because the writers expect the end-users to learn these meanings and then read them in wherever the defined word is used - and unsuccessful - because, not surprisingly, readers don’t actually do this.
Let’s take the example of the international risk management standard (ISO 31000:2009). The definition of the central word risk (not surprisingly) is so obscure that it is followed by five notes intended to improve clarity. However, these notes are not only deemed not to be part of the definition but were in some cases, mutually contradictory. Remarkably for an organization dedicated to ‘standardization’, among ISO’s 20 thousand odd standards, someone found the word risk is assigned nearly 40 different meanings – i.e., to label 40 different ideas!
I have little doubt that these types of experiences are what gave rise to the saying that a camel is a horse designed by a committee!
An extension of this problem is to believe that these defined words are themselves a label for a discrete and validated body of knowledge. This, of course, is impossible if there is no agreement about what the word means. And yet, whether one refers to Risk Management or Enterprise Risk Management (the difference in my view is entirely illusory) the reality is that all manner of organizational edifices and an ever-expanding faux artificial vocabulary have been constructed around a word with no real meaning.
Australia and New Zealand are credited with helping to develop the field of risk management (sometimes referred to as Enterprise Risk Management (“ERM”) and for nearly 40 years, you were either a member or chair of 25 national and international standards-writing committees dealing with fire engineering, building controls, ambulance and paramedical services, aviation firefighting and risk management. As you look back, what were some of the seminal moments or key takeaways from this experience that contributed to your present views (to be explored in greater detail later in the interview)?
For the reason explained in my response to the previous question, in hindsight, I suspect that it would be more accurate to say that we should have been blamed rather than credited with propagating and attempting to standardize risk management - as the exercise has proved to be little more than a massive distraction and a demonstrable failure. Still, as a friend of mine once said, life is not a straight line and sometimes you have to get it wrong to get it right! What the many from across the world, who contributed to this failure, omitted to do at the starting post was to ask the question “if risk management is the answer, what was the question?” and only then set about providing an answer using only ordinary words.
That question was never asked before publication of the first international standard ISO 31000:2009 which was largely motivated by a desire by practitioners (usually, those who earned their living from perpetuating the belief system of risk management) to codify under an “ISO” badge the material in an Australian and NZ joint standard first developed in 1995 (and revised in 1999 and 2004). It was only when a small task group was established to develop a design specification for the routine 5-yearly review of ISO 31000:2009 that this fundamental question was raised. The Task Group soon concluded that “the problem” was wholly and solely the adequacy of decision-making which, of course, is the only means by which organizations pursue their purpose.
Sadly, despite there being strong international support for this back to fundamentals approach reflected in an agreed design specification from which the replacement standard would be written, vested interests and ISO politics soon kyboshed the approach and so I disengaged - as Grant had done two years earlier. (We call ourselves ISO refugees!) The eventual amendment was best described as the product of fiddling at the margins and in my view, made ISO 31000 worse, and certainly no better than the original.
To me, this experience was a salutary reminder of the limitations of both standards (which at heart, are an attempt to validate and consolidate existing knowledge in a form that is easily reusable), and international and national standards-making organizations. These bodies, and standards generally, work tolerably well for nuts-and-bolts type subjects (design of boilers, for example for which real knowledge exists) but are not suited to trying to create knowledge or resolve or standardize more philosophical or even illusory topics such as risk management which are more in the nature of unvalidated belief systems The ISO 9001 standard on quality systems is another notorious example in this respect.
An underlying problem is that most standards-making organizations are, at heart, publishers. The operating model is to establish committees of experts - who are expected to donate their time and knowledge - without there being any assurance of the actual level of expertise of the individuals concerned. and then to consolidate their views on the basis [ostensibly] of consensus. Although there is consultation with member countries, there is no guarantee that this involves the real end-users of the standard. Once finalized, the standard is published then sold with ISO and not the experts owning the resulting intellectual property and revenue.
As you observe, my standards-writing experience went beyond standards about risk management and in this respect I am much happier about what was achieved as these were mainly nuts-and-bolts type standards. Those concerned with fire protection engineering inevitably address two tricky issues: a) how much (e.g., how much water does a sprinkler system need to deliver) and b) will it work (i.e., the issue of reliability). After that, the question of how to achieve these outcomes is largely application of conventional engineering practice (for example determining the size of pipes using hydraulic calculation of pressure loss as the water flows through to where it is needed) and clear drafting.
The issues around how much mainly concern time or, more particularly, matching the speed of fire growth to the speed of response. In this regard, the words in Shakespeare’s Henry VIth are a useful reminder: ‘a small fire quickly trodden which suffered, rivers will not quench’ because fires in buildings grow exponentially with time. This means, for example, that there is a linkage between the sensitivity of sprinkler heads (which determines when, in the fire growth curve they will operate) and the amount of water that they must deliver so that the cooling effect exceeds the heating effect at that moment. Heads with a slower response (due to their design) need to deliver more water which, in turn, requires larger pipes and pumps etc.
Considerations of reliability also involve assumptions about human behaviour, automation, and attention to detail. I once made myself unpopular by refusing to approve a new sprinkler system costing hundreds of thousands of dollars because a 20-cent label on the panel that controlled the automatic water pump showed an incorrect value for the pump speed. With thousands of dollars in retention moneys held up, many angry letters were written to me and my boss but in the meantime, a diligent maintenance technician noticed that the pump was running much faster than the speed shown on the label and so slowed it down, unaware that as a result it would now no longer perform its duty! Detail matters.
There was also a famous case in California where a fire sprinkler contractor just screwed the sprinkler heads into the ceiling and installed no pipes = something that the inspector didn’t check before issuing a certificate for the system.
Since the first sprinkler systems were installed there in the 1880s, New Zealand (and Australia) has had an enviable international record of 99.98% satisfactory performance. This means that the system controlled the fire within the limits of the water supply, which in 90% of cases meant that damage was limited to only about 5m.2
One contributory reason was that the design standards required the main water valve to be monitored such that if closed (for example by an arsonist) or left closed (by a technician), the fire department was automatically called. This measure defeated several arsonists and caused heightened awareness in maintenance technicians anxious not to have to explain away the sudden arrival of four big red trucks!
More than in any other country, New Zealand has been at the forefront in recognizing that as well as protecting property and business continuation, well-designed sprinkler systems would protect occupants – even those in nursing homes etc. who were frail or immobile. They do this by controlling the fire before it generates fatal levels of smoke. I was very proud that in the 20+ years that I served on or led that standards committee, this record was maintained. In this work on the committee, I was helped by my experience as an inspector of systems, and my experiences from having attended about 500 fires in one capacity or another including visiting sprinkler protected buildings that had experienced a fire to see whether our assumptions were valid.
My country, the United States, has long struggled with fire protection. What was it like to be appointed by the New Zealand government to chair the New Zealand Fire Service Commission and National Rural Fire Authority and what enduring lessons can you share from that experience?
It was a seminal experience. Although I knew the Government was considering my appointment (some years earlier I had been an ordinary member of the Commission), it had become very political - principally due to suspicions by the firefighters’ union that they would be faced with change. After several months of uncertainty, the phone call from the responsible cabinet Minister came mid-afternoon telling me I would be appointed to the position at 5 pm that day; so, it was a flying start into immediate controversy as the incumbent, very displeased that his term had not been extended, was immediately critical as were some politicians from opposition parties! In every sense of the expression, it was a baptism by fire!
Commission role and legislation
In New Zealand, at the time, all fire brigades in towns and cities were part of a single national fire service with about 8,000 firefighters of whom 80% were volunteers. The Fire Service Act designated the Commission as the ‘owner’ of this urban fire service which was funded (as with the earlier earthquake insurance scheme I have described) by a levy on fire insurance policies, calculated on property value, collected by insurers and audited by the Commission. Not surprisingly, insurers resented this obligation because although the levy appeared as an identified line item on their invoices to their customers, it had the appearance of making their insurance product appear more expensive.
The Commission had a statutory duty to ensure that the Fire Service was run efficiently; in other words, as I saw it, to ensure that there was a clear connection between costs and resulting outcomes. The reality was, however, that as is the case in many countries, it was custom and practice rather than evidence-based decision-making that had most informed its approach. Previous efforts to move away from legacy-based strategies had invariably led to political outcry, often driven by unions defending the status quo. I knew that the way ahead would not be smooth!
In rural areas, fire-fighting coverage was via rural fire authorities (RFAs) which were owned and mainly funded by land management agencies. These are largely local government, but also Defence, Department of Conservation, and private plantation forest owners. About 15% of the funding for most of these agencies came from discretionary grants from the Commission funded by the Fire Service Levy. Most of the 3,000 or so rural firefighters although in a sense volunteer and fully trained and equipped, were normally employees of their land management agency – for example, as a bulldozer driver for the local government council – and then redeployed in the event of fire.
The Rural Fires Act provided for coordination between rural agencies and with urban agencies (for example the same 111 national emergency telephone number was used and there was a common call-taking and dispatch center). Coordination of RFAs and standardization of practice and equipment was achieved via the National Rural Fire Authority (NRFA) which I also chaired and included establishing codes of practice to ensure compatible and adequate equipment, operating protocols, and high standards of firefighter safety. The Commission’s discretion in the provision of grants to RFA provided the coercion (if any were needed) to comply with these codes.
The NRFA was also empowered to:
conduct scientific research (for example, using large scale test burns to establish the predilection of various types of vegetation to ignite and become wildfires in various weather conditions); establish a national automated fire-weather alerting system (which used algorithms derived from the research to automatically issue daily local updates for landowners and RFAs); and invest in public education including information about wildfire conditions via signage on main roads.
These two Acts recognized the significant difference in the function and culture of urban and rural fire agencies. The former is very much a firefighting agency, whereas rural agencies are first and foremost land management agencies of which fire suppression is but one part of the jig saw for managing wildfire potential. Sadly, in recent years, in a foolish act of legislative vandalism devoid of any rational sense, the two were combined. It was a case of providing an answer without a question - a consequence of New Zealand’s unusual Parliamentary system which too often results in clumsy coalitions requiring appeasement of minor parties. As predicted, costs have soared, and outcomes have degraded.
The cleverly integrated legislative arrangements for urban and rural under which I was required to operate also provided for the Commission to establish a rural firefighting fund from the levy income. The RFF served as funder of last resort if RFAs were unable to recover the costs of fighting large wildfires (for example hireage of helicopters etc.) from third parties responsible for allowing the escape of fire from their property. (Legally, these recoveries were based on a historical principle established in the British common law in Rylands v Fletcher whereby a party is liable for damage or loss suffered by others through the escape of a dangerous thing under their control).
Especially for some of the smaller RFAs, the Fund was an important provision as (remembering Shakespeare’s adage earlier mentioned) it avoided unnecessary delay in mobilizing air or other support (such as earthmoving equipment to create fire lines) while the fire was still of a manageable size because of anxiety as to whether the county budget could afford it. It meant that one way or another, they would get their money back which also reassured commercial and private helicopter operators that their bills would be paid, making them willing to respond immediately. The RFF was empowered to protect its funds by using its expertise in cost recovery efforts against third parties under subrogation of the RFA’s common law rights.
Legislative imperative for ‘fire safety’
Another highly innovative feature of the legislation – a global first, I think – was the imposition on the Commission of the obligation to promote fire safety - i.e., prevention and protection measures other than the big red trucks. The Act specified that fire safety was to be its prime consideration – an unmistakable imperative, one would have thought! The Act identified several ways in which the Commission could promote fire safety including public education, input to building codes, funding research, and cooperating with universities. In fact, we used this latter provision to fund the establishment of a fire engineering degree at one of New Zealand’s major universities, thereby closing the gap that I had encountered in my younger days.
Stimulus for this requirement to promote fire safety can be traced to a public inquiry into the 1969 Sprott House nursing home fire in which 13 elderly residents died. Even though the New Zealand Government had become a world leader by the early 1950s, by retro- fitting sprinkler systems in all its psychiatric hospitals (following a fatal fire in one such establishment – the Seacliffe ‘Asylum’- in 1942 which claimed 37 lives) it was realized at the inquiry into the 1969 nursing home fire, that not only were such requirement for sprinklers not specified in the general building codes, but the fire services of the day had failed to show any leadership in either bringing about change or highlighting the danger to those in nursing homes. The 1969 fire inquiry also served as a grim reminder that because of the speed of fire growth in buildings, especially when combined with occupants with impaired abilities, it is simply unrealistic to imagine that life safety can be achieved by fire brigade response – no matter how fast or well resourced.
There is one more aspect to this topic that I want to share. During my term as President of the Institution of Fire Engineers, I was able to give further stimulus to the use of sprinklers on the occasion of a nine person-fatality fire in a 19-person resident nursing home in Auckland near where I lived. On hearing of the fire on the morning news, I stopped by on my way to work and being recognized by a fire officer was asked to speak to the media. They had heard that this home had no sprinklers and asked me what would have been the result had there been such a system. On camera I said, “well, all 19 residents would have been having their breakfast right now and chattering about the bit of excitement during the night.”
The journalist asked me whether there was some way to demonstrate this; so, with a bit of string-pulling with the owners and the insurers and gaining the cooperation of the sprinkler industry, we managed to clean out and re-furbish the gutted sitting room (where the fire had started), install sprinklers and complete the mock-up with borrowed furniture so we could recreate the ignition scenario in which the fire began. (A newspaper had fallen behind a chair onto a wall panel heater and in the pre-dawn hours when the heating came on, ignited the newspaper and then curtains. With 19 big comfortable armchairs upholstered with polyurethane foam plastic, it was no time before a 6-megawatt fire was raging in the room which then spread to the bedroom block where the elderly victims perished before staff and a brave neighbor could evacuate them and even before the first truck from the nearby fire station arrived.)
While I knew this mockup would easily demonstrate the speed with which the sprinkler would operate and the rapid fire knock down that would result, how would the TV audience be assured that sleeping occupants would not succumb? With no time to obtain and install sophisticated gas sampling instrumentation we decided on a more visual approach and so with the cameraman filming through the window, two fire officers and I decided to sit on a couch in the room right next to where the fire would start. With me calling out the rising temperatures from some thermocouples we had installed at head height and at the ceiling, the flame rapidly climbed the curtain hitting the ceiling in about 60 seconds as the ceiling temperature reached 90degC (195F) and about 40degC at head height, (equivalent to a hot summer day). At that point the nearest sprinkler operated and immediately knocked down the fire – soaking us in the process! We suffered no respiratory difficulties and were able to simply stand up and walk out of the room…. all caught on camera and played that night on national bulletins. Seeing is believing.
Combined with an innovative provision in a revised Building Act that year which could compel immediate closure of existing buildings if deemed unsafe (reinforced by an enlightened judgement in a test case and upheld and further reinforced on appeal) within a couple of years the owners of all nursing homes with five or more beds were retrofitted with life-saving sprinklers as was the rebuilt home where we had done our demonstration. The reopening coincided with the first international fire conference in New Zealand, which was held during my presidency of the IFE and so I arranged for the President of the U.S. Association of Fire Chiefs who was a guest speaker, to present a plaque of congratulations. His association had long championed the use of residential sprinkler systems in the United States.
The Commission is an independent statutory entity such that, apart from approving its budget and setting the rate of levy each year, the responsible cabinet minister had no direct input to the way it fulfilled its statutory mandate. However, there was an obligation to keep the minister informed and I well remember my first meeting with him in his office late one evening shortly after I had been appointed. He said “I have just inherited this portfolio. We seem to spend more and more on the fire service and yet the numbers of fires and deaths keep going up and up. Can this be improved?” I was convinced that it could and told him so, but I warned him that the road ahead would be rocky.
On becoming Chairman, I discovered that historically, despite the legislative imperative, the Commission had not in fact treated the promotion of fire safety as its prime consideration (in fact, historically it had spent much less than 0.1% of its total budget on this purpose). However, I knew that greater investment in fire safety was the path to achieving improved outcomes (i.e., fewer fires, fewer deaths, less damage).
The fire service I inherited had little fire engineering and scientific expertise so in designing this changed approach, I initially relied heavily on my own experience as both a firefighter and a fire engineer, and what I had learnt and observed seven years earlier during a study project I undertook with some smart economists looking at the fire-safety v firefighting conundrum. Over a period of three months during that study, I carried a pager so that the fire department control room could immediately alert me to every structure fire in NZ’s largest city - which included several fatal fires. Day or night, I would attend immediately. As well as the technical aspects of the fire and critically reviewing the operational firefighting practices, I would also obtain the control room time logs for every fire. From the time of call, times of dispatch and arrival for each truck, printouts of all fireground tactical messages, I would synthesize these with observations of those in attendance and my own scene observations in order to create timelines for each fire.
I would also make a point at house fires of talking to the occupants who I would often find standing in their nightclothes in the street. Due to the prevalence of cheap polyurethane furnishings (which result in very fast developing fires) a disproportionate number of house fires occur in lower socio-economic groups many of whom do not have English as their first language which, combined with fire service uniforms being very similar to the cops, created barriers to the effectiveness of communication and fire safety messaging.
Later when Chairman of the Commission, in answer to my question as to why these groups seemed so vulnerable, I was told by some “oh you can’t teach ‘them’ anything.” From those experiences during the earlier study, I knew that was not true as I learned that these people were just as concerned about their wellbeing and that of their kids as anyone else and I realized that the main problem was one of how we were packaging the messages. It was our problem, not theirs. Later we would establish community ambassadors drawn from the various cultural and ethnic groups as our conduit for fire safety messaging. Every house in the country also received a small highly illustrated booklet Protect What YOU Value, which we also printed in four languages.
Knowing that we remember much more of what we see than what we are told, we purchased TV time whereby, over a three minute ad break, we would buy five ten-second slots spread across the break and in each slot show in real time the progress of a room fire at that point. For many, it was a startling realisation that from a flame an inch high at the beginning of the ad break, absolutely everything in the room would be burning by the end of the break.
Rather than increasing net expenditure at the bottom of the cliff (more fire trucks etc.) I knew that first and foremost, we needed a lot more focus at the top of the cliff although we did introduce new technologies such as progressively fitting compressed air foam to trucks based on research that we funded, carrying positive pressure ventilation fans to push hot gases out of buildings to aid firefighter entry and fitting trucks with laptops and thermal imagining cameras – all of which improved both firefighter safety and property protection.
However, I also inherited a backlog of deferred expenditure on replacement of old fire stations (we had more than 400) and $20 million in deferred maintenance which was not reflected in the depreciation rates being used in the balance sheet. One reason for the fire station replacement backlog was the practice of building very expensive grand edifices rather than simple functional buildings with good amenities for volunteer brigade which allowed acceleration of the building program within the same capital expenditure budget.
My first decision was to refuse to sign the annual financial statements before they went to Parliament even though they had been cleared by the government’s auditors. I discovered that several senior management contracts had been withheld from the government’s public sector oversight department and contained platinum parachute clauses (that the employee could trigger at will). These would never have been approved had they been referred as required and they created a very substantial unfunded liability as did the deferred maintenance. My refusal to sign created an uproar but changes were made.
The fire service had a very hierarchical and centralized management system. There was an assumption that from both a management and operational perspective, volunteer brigades were subordinate even though some such brigades were attending more calls per year than many of the paid stations in suburban parts of the cities.
There was so much to change but I also believed this could be achieved at a lower total cost.
The first major reform was to remodel the management superstructure– an exercise that turned 400 salaried positions into 300 positions, severely flattened the structure and delegated far more power to volunteer chiefs many of whom were very successful small business owners in their day job and very capable managers. Under the outstanding leadership of the acting CEO who we had appointed as others, sensing what lay ahead, had pulled their parachute ripcords and left, these reforms were achieved smoothly with only two (unsuccessful) legal challenges. This saved $4 million per annum – sufficient to meet $2 million in severance costs leaving a spare $2 million in the first year to start on the maintenance backlog and a high-profile focus on fire safety.
To emphasize the importance of evidence-based decision-making and application of modern technical knowledge in the restructure (which consolidated eight regions and 22 areas into just 6 regions), we created a highly paid fire engineer position in each region reporting directly to the region head, and nationally a Chief Fire Engineer, recruiting one of the world’s leading researchers to that post. I also created a post for an experienced lawyer – not as in-house counsel, but to find ways in which we could use existing law or encourage law reforms to enhance fire safety. Internationally, these measures were a first.
With the support of my brave minister, who time and again weathered the daily political pressure from his opponents seeking to defeat fire service reform, I set about this ambitious reform program. In my defence, he would rise and with his very straight back, staunchly say to the Parliament “I support the Commission in its endeavors to reduce the incidence and consequences of fire” and then sit down. He unfairly got the nickname “Meercat Jack!”
In devising the reforms, I was guided by some sound private advice from a previous New Zealand Finance minister who had, in the eighties, implemented enormous economic reforms which vastly improved the fortunes of New Zealand generally. He said the three key guidelines for successful reform were: a) only commence reform if it is worthwhile and there is a substantial advantage to be gained, b) ensure the reforms are comprehensive – change everything you need to at once – and not incrementally, c) go as fast as you can. And so, we did.
I was also well supported by my three very experienced and worldly-wise fellow Commissioners – one with a doctorate in engineering and head of a government department, one a leading economist experienced in public sector reform, and one from the senior ranks of industry who had been at the leading edge of tough industrial reform and, having always worked in timber towns, had served in the local volunteer brigade and eventually became president of the national organization for volunteer firefighters. Unlike the usual public sector practice of bureaucrats writing endless papers, we combined our collective experience in decision-making and designed our reforms in one afternoon on a whiteboard.
The purpose of the reform program was directly related to the statutes as ably summed up (above) by the Minister to the Parliament. As Grant and I would later quote in our book Deciding (in a chapter about the primacy of clarity of purpose) “if one does not know the port to which one is sailing, no wind is favorable.”
Contrasting with what is usually done in the public service, the focus of our plan was not, therefore on activity (measured in ‘inputs’ and ‘outputs’) but on the much more challenging task of improving outcomes – i.e. fires, life loss, property damage and vegetation burnt. The main tools were harnessing scientific knowledge (both about fires and human behaviour), public education (to address the challenge of fire in the home), and the building codes in relation to other buildings.
Unlike many agencies seeking to change public behaviour, we did not attempt to tell people what to do, but rather we aimed to first create an informed public that understood fire behaviour and the threat that fire posed to building occupants. Once this was done, we then provided the information about how they could make them and their families safer. Hence, our slogan was: “Protect what YOU value.”
I was asked once by the media whether I was recommending that people install smoke alarms in their homes. However, I was greeted with incredulous looks when I said I didn’t know whether they should or should not install smoke alarms as I could not possibly know whether they valued their children and elderly parents. But they slowly ‘got it’ when I went on to say that if they did care about their dependents, then they needed to know about any fire while it was still very small (flames less than 1 foot high) because from that point, typically, there would be only about 90 seconds of safe time to escape, because fires in the home develop so very quickly.
Although my answer raised eyebrows, within two years, there was a huge voluntary uptake of home smoke alarms with the result that, combined with greater use of sprinklers in nursing homes, accidental fire deaths dropped by about 60%!
Too often, volunteers are taken for granted.
Hence, in my search for improved efficiency, an early priority was to ensure that our 6,000 volunteer firefighters felt valued because the alternative, having paid firefighters, is very expensive and often produced no better outcomes.
In this quest, I was much assisted by my days of running New Zealand’s national competitive ski racing program which was wholly reliant on volunteers for the conduct of races. Standing in one spot on a mountainside for hours on end as a race official is not the most exciting way for a skier to spend the weekend. Yet I learned that one can demand the highest of professional standards from volunteers if they feel valued, understand what is expected and that their practical needs when doing the job are taken care of. This can be the occasional word of praise and appreciation, and in the ski-racing context, having a few relief officials to provide cover during bathroom breaks and on the very cold days, regularly delivering coffee and muffins.
I would therefore make a point of calling in to see the local fire chief in small towns if I was passing through and hear directly about their realities – especially concerning recruiting and retention. One told me that he himself was thinking of quitting because of the time demands of the administrative load that we were imposing on him. As an example, he showed me the many pages of the cost coding book that he had to consult to make a reimbursement claim for simple consumables such as batteries and fuel. I couldn’t think what we could possibly be doing with such micro data so, back at my HQ, I asked the CFO to work from a zero base (i.e., no cost codes) and demonstrate the value of each subsequent code that he felt we needed for good governance and efficiency. It turned out that we were collecting but not using a lot of data – much of which had little value but was intruding on the precious time of people who were working for us and their community for free.
Another chief told me that while employers were generally happy to release their volunteer firefighting staff to respond to fires (recognizing the common interest with their own house and property) he sensed that there was no community recognition of that very valuable contribution in the wider community. So, we commenced a project to put a large signboard out the front of every volunteer station thanking and listing the local businesses who were supporting the brigade by releasing staff to serve as volunteers.
These experiences reflected the value of getting out and seeing things at first hand and recognizing that the past is seldom a great guide to the future.
The third part of this interview will focus in detail on your new book entitled Deciding - A Guide to Even Better Decision-Making (2020) which you co-wrote with Grant Purdy. Please share a bit about other books that have most influenced your thinking and work.
Three books in particular come to mind.
One, A History of the English Speaking Peoples by Sir Winston Churchill not only provided insight into the journey from which my generation evolved, but was an exemplar – a joyous read, in fact – of lucid writing. A few years ago, on the occasion of his 21st birthday, I managed to find near originals of the four-book series for my youngest son (who was studying international relations).
Robert Townsend’s book Up the Organization reflected his experience as newly appointed CEO of Avis with the task of moving it from Hertz’s shadow. “We might be Number Two but we are trying harder” was his motto. It was the only ‘management’ book I ever read but his understanding of human ambition and behaviors, his willingness to think things through from first principles with a strong outcomes focus, and his willingness to abandon conventional practice (such as allocating the offices with the views to senior executives and instead reserving them for the typists as they had a much less exciting job) and replacing the human resources department with a single people person whose job was to fight up for staff, were very influential for me and made me a convert to the value of reform.
The 1981 Report of the Royal Commission to Inquire into The Crash on Mount Erebus, Antarctica of a DC10 Aircraft (which I read on a 14-hour flight in a DC10 while crossing the Pacific!) was another very fine piece of writing. The orderly and logical approach of the Commissioner (the Hon Peter Mahon – a Judge of the NZ High Court) provided an exemplar that proved very useful in the many investigations of incidents of various types that I later took part as my career evolved.
Despite the technical complexity, the report showed the mastery of his (very fine) inquiring mind: assuming nothing, inquiring into every detail and reaching a startling, yet persuasive conclusion that completely exonerated the pilots who hitherto had been blamed by the official investigators. His punishing observation with respect to the evidence given to him by the airline that “I am forced reluctantly to say that I had to listen to an orchestrated litany of lies?” although later judicially criticized, will be seared forever into the memories of all who took an interest in this disaster which sadly, took 257 lives.