Paul and his team don’t take hospital safety for granted

Paul Donkin, estates officer (fire), with Norhtumbria Healthcare.
Paul Donkin, estates officer (fire), with Norhtumbria Healthcare.

In the latest in our series of looking behind the curtain of the local NHS, we meet Paul Donkin, estates officer (fire) for Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust.

That hospitals are safe is something most of us take for granted. Paul and his team do not.

In charge of fire safety, Paul and his team ensure hospitals across Northumberland and North Tyneside are a secure environment for staff, patients and visitors alike.

It is a high tech, detailed and extraordinarily demanding job – without which nothing would happen inside any of the trusts dozens of buildings.

However, there still remains a lingering stereotype – dusty fire warden from 1945 – which needs to be counteracted.

“I think a lot of people see us as overly serious people who only come out to tell you to stop wedging doors open or leaving the toaster switched on. But I promise we do have a sense of humour!

“The issue we face is that modern hospitals are incredibly complex and contain a vast array of materials – many of which are combustible or dangerous. As such, what might seem a small thing – leaving a door wedged open – can in reality represent a huge risk.”

From the banks of the Tyne to the Scottish borders, Paul and his small team travel to inspect buildings and equipment to ensure they are safe for use. They are also responsible for ensuring that all 12,000 plus members of staff have and maintain a high level of fire safety training.

More than 6,000 staff members received face-to-face fire safety training in 2018 and Paul believes this is the most powerful form of fire prevention.

“There is a lot of very sophisticated technology and equipment that we use, but the most effective form of fire detection and prevention will always be a person.

“In a real fire – be it large or small – the first few minutes are critical; especially if it involves moving significant numbers of vulnerable patients.

“As a result, we focus a lot of time talking directly to our staff so that they have the skills and confidence to react if a fire ever did break out.”

Despite seeing most of what the industry has to throw at him, Paul still has one burning desire that he wants to achieve: “I’ve been in the NHS for 10 years now and it is still a dream of mine that fire safety becomes second nature to people, not just something they endure through inductions and training sessions once a year.

“It’s not something to just be mindful of at work, it is just as important to remember at home too. If you know how to deal with a fire on a ward or department, then you know how to deal with a fire in your kitchen.”