Belfast Telegraph

Scandal-hit fire authority has turned a corner: retiring chief

BY MICHAEL McHUGH

The chairman of the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS), who is stepping down a year early, admitted last night: "It has been a very tough time."

Dr Joe McKee steered the organisation through a series of investigations into whistleblower concerns but faced calls from MLAs to resign earlier this year.

Three probes were carried out following allegations about fraud, unapproved bonuses and failures to deal with staff grievances.

Whistleblower Linda Ford won £20,000 compensation after she took a case against the Fire Service.

Dr McKee said: "The human cost has been significant, but there are clear signs that a corner has been turned."

He spent most of his career in education and music and was deputy chair of the Grand Opera House Trust. He was appointed to the Fire Service for a four-year term at the start of 2011 and will step aside at the start of next year.

His term coincided with whistleblower allegations against the service. Auditors said the claims, which exposed a range of failings, were badly handled by the organisation.

Ms Ford was suspended from work for a year despite many of her allegations being substantiated by probes by Stormont's Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. The audit office warned her treatment could discourage other potential whistleblowers.

Issues flagged up by staff included:

* Unapproved bonus payments to certain senior staff.

* The discovery of unauthorised sponsorship agreements.

* Failings in a firefighter recruitment process.

* A potential conflict of interest involving a senior member of staff.

Health Minister Edwin Poots  said: "He has made many friends during his term of office and made time in his busy schedule to visit fire stations and speak with firefighters. He made no secret of how proud he was of them and the entire Fire and Rescue Service.

"However, recent months have been very difficult and it is understandable that Dr McKee has chosen to move on."

He said the service had been going through significant transition and change in recent years which Dr McKee had embraced with dedication and commitment.

He was instrumental in bringing in an interim chief executive to the Fire Service and to take forward the change management agenda.

Jim Wallace, Fire Service chief executive, said: "His commitment to ensuring the highest standard of fire and rescue services has always been Joe's priority and I know this will continue to be so in his remaining months in post."

STORY SO FAR

In his early career Joe McKee was a firefighter, gaining operational experience in Carrickfergus, Belfast, Armagh and Ballymena. He was a broadcaster for many years. A Fire Service statement said: "The past three years has seen the NI Fire Service under a great deal of public scrutiny and Joe McKee believes that the end of this year will mark the conclusion of a very challenging period, but will also create a timely opportunity for a new team to lead the service into the future."

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