Belfast Telegraph

'Corner turned' for fire service

The chairman of the Northern Ireland Fire Service (NIFRS), who is stepping down a year early, admitted tonight: "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 assemblymen to resign earlier this year.

Three investigations 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 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, the fire service said.

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 fire-fighter recruitment process.

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

Stormont 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 has been going through significant transition and change in recent years which Dr McKee has embraced with dedication and commitment.

He was instrumental in bringing in an interim chief executive to the fire service to bolster the senior management team 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."

In his early career he 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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