Q&A with Lynsey Seal from London Fire Brigade
Lynsey Seal*, Principal Fire Engineer and Joint Head of London Fire Brigade’s Fire Engineering Group, talks to Idha Valeur about her journey to Chartership.
How did you start off in your career?
I was offered an apprenticeship straight from school in a mechanical manufacturing company that produced equipment for the oil and petrochemical industry. My role was Quality Engineer and through the apprenticeship I was sponsored to gain academic qualifications – ONC/HNC and BEng (Hons) in mechanical engineering – while gaining work experience at the same time.
I then took up a role as a mechanical project engineer at a company that produced heat exchangers, again for the oil and petrochemical industry. I found that working for small to medium-sized specialist manufacturing companies, there were constant organisational financial struggles and I felt that a change in direction was needed.
I saw an advert for London Fire Brigade (LFB), which was looking for fire safety inspecting officers and through the application process I was fortunate that my engineering qualifications were noted, and I was offered a role within the fire engineering group. With this role I was also sponsored to re-train and gain a second engineering degree, this time in fire. I have been with the team for 15 years and am now the longest serving team member, progressing to the principal fire engineer role I now hold.
What does your daily work involve?
My daily work is extremely varied but my core duty is reviewing building regulations consultations for some of the more complex schemes being designed and developed in London. Our team covers the whole of London and any projects that use fire engineering as part of the design will typically come through us for comment.
Our primary focus is on public and firefighter safety and we review the proposals with a look ahead at future compliance with the fire safety legislation – Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order –, for which we have an enforcement role. All of our team are trained fire safety officers as well as engineers and we are often called upon to give a technical opinion on whether a building may be safe to continue to occupy, in fire safety terms, or give an opinion on a potential prosecution case we may be bringing.
We also sit on technical committees such as British Standards and industry lead steering groups, and this allows us to try to influence future designs.
In terms of our team, diversity and inclusion is something that I believe produces a higher performing team and naturally provides a range of different opinions and experiences which, particularly in our role, is needed to form balanced positions and measured responses to issues or problems. I recently became a STEM ambassador and I have been using this role as a catalyst in publicising fire engineering as a career – many have never heard of fire engineering – and doing more to encourage young people to take up STEM subjects at school and, hopefully, then STEM-based careers.
What’s been your biggest career highlight to date?
This is a difficult question but probably working on the development of the Olympic Park for the London 2012 Games. I was LFB Lead Engineer on the athletes’ village, which posed particular challenges, as it needed to be designed for both the games and legacy use. In fire safety terms, that means coming up with a solution that effectively meets both a hotel and block of flats standard, and each would typically be designed very differently.
I also worked on various other projects across the scheme and it was extremely rewarding to then attend, as a member of the public, to see it all in use in both the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
How was your journey towards Chartership?
I found the journey relatively easy in terms of the qualifications, as I took a standard route with accredited qualifications, but what I found difficult was determining the right point to apply and feeling ready. I went through a cycle of comparing myself to other people who were already chartered but it took a while to recognise that many of these individuals had been chartered for a long time and that the comparison I was making wasn’t really relevant.
It took me around two to three years from considering starting the process to actually submitting my application, but because I had waited until I was confident, I submitted a strong application which was accepted first time and I had what I believe was a good interview.
How did you prepare for the application process?
I prepared by seeking advice from my professional institution and talking to others who had gone through the process already. They were extremely helpful as the process was typically for evidence submitted by those producing designs, and this isn’t what our role is. I, therefore, had to consider the evidence I had and ensure it was relevant to the objectives and explain why our role was at the requisite level.
I then prepared for my interview by being really honest with myself and reflecting upon what areas I could be perceived to be weaker in, as I recognised this was where I was likely to be questioned in depth.
How has being Chartered changed your career?
On a very personal level I found quite a lot of validation through the process. Being judged and assessed by your peers in a process that you know has tough and high standards, and coming out the other side, provides a lot of self confidence. Of course, it remains the start of a further journey, as you have to demonstrate how you are maintaining that level and developing further – you can’t just sit back and think that you have that badge now.
What advice would you give to someone pursuing Chartership?
To be really honest with yourself about why you want to go through the process, and whether you are ready or not. In our industry at the moment, there are some real drivers for becoming chartered and the number of applications through our professional institution has risen dramatically, but this does beg the question for me as to why some of these individuals hadn’t applied for it before?
You should also ensure that the evidence you submit is yours and don’t be modest – it is all about what you personally have done so more I and less we, which I don’t think comes naturally to a lot of people.
Why was becoming Chartered important to you?
Becoming professionally registered with UK Engineering is an ethos within our team and it is expected that all team members will be working toward this. I believe all engineers should be aspiring to do this at the appropriate point in their careers, particularly where roles are directly related to people’s safety.
What is next for you?
To continue in this role, which I find extremely fulfilling, and to support others with their development. I’m also part of a small, informal STEM network, which covers a wide range of engineering and technology subjects. This group was set up following a successful STEM event hosted by the army at their military academy in Sandhurst, where around 900 girls between 11-14 were given an insight into different careers. LFB was invited to attend and I was able to give talks on the fire service as many people don’t recognise the variety of career pathways within the fire service, engineering being just one of them. This year it is going to be a two-day event with around 2,500 children, and LFB will be there again, this time showcasing more of our STEM career pathways.
* Lynsey Seal BEng (Hons) CEng MIFireE AMIMechE is Principal Fire Engineer and Joint Head of London Fire Brigade’s Fire Engineering Group, a STEM ambassador as well as being a civil engineer.