When Alasdair Hay became the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service’s first chief in 2013, he had no idea just how turbulent his five years in office were going to be.
From the Glasgow School of Art fires and Clutha to the bin lorry crash and Cameron House, Alasdair has ended up steering the merged service through the stormiest period in the history of the modern fire services.
With some of the biggest tragedies and fires happening under his watch, it’s no wonder Alasdair, who is stepping down next month, is haunted by some of his memories.
In an exclusive exit interview with the Sunday Mail, the 56-year-old dad of three tells of his “bitter disappointment” when the School of Art caught fire for a second time and how the aftermath of the George Square bin lorry crash will be etched on his mind forever.
Alasdair, who joined the service when he was 21, said: “It’s been an eventful and emotional five years, not only for me but for firefighters across Scotland.
“The Clutha helicopter crash in November 2013 came very early in the creation of the national service. We were always confident we could maintain our ability and respond to a major crisis and we did. Tragedy does not go far enough to describe what happened at the Clutha.
“The frontline crews were incredible. If you ask them, they will remain modest and say they are trained to deal with life-and-death situations and to go into dangerous environments but that doesn’t take anything away from what they did that night.”
Alasdair, who is married to Caroline, a retired nursing manager, added: “The first Glasgow School of Art fire came the following year.
"It was a fire that, even though there was no loss of life, devastated not only the nation but had a global impact. So when I got the call about the second incident last June, I felt bitterly disappointed. How on earth could this have happened again?
“I knew how much the Mackintosh building meant and was valued around the world and how hard our firefighters had
fought to save it the last time.
“I just kept thinking back to the firefighter who the first time round met me at the scene and said, ‘Boss, it’s our worst nightmare. It’s the Mack.’ And here was the nightmare happening all over again and after firefighters had fought so hard to save the structure of the building and salvage so many objects in 2014.”
But out of all the incidents during his time at the helm, Alasdair – who grew up in Edinburgh – says the bin lorry crash had the biggest impact.
The fire chief said: “The incident that haunts me the most is George Square. And I don’t say that lightly – I’ve been in the fire service for more than three decades and I’ve been to house fires and road traffic collisions where families and children have been killed.
“I arrived about half an hour after it happened. When the first firefighter came over to brief me, he burst into tears and that created a huge emotional response in me. You have to remember firefighters are people. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been in the job a few months or 30 years, you have a human reaction.
“The first watch on the scene at George Square were the same that had attended the Clutha the year before. I can’t even begin to imagine the impact this had on these firefighters but they just kept going – consummate professionals as always. I’m so proud of them.”
Alasdair, who will be succeeded as Chief Fire Officer by Martin Blunden in March, also praised the SFRS’s response to Storm Frank in December 2015.
He said: “Ballater after the storm looked like a scene from a hurricane-hit Caribbean. The firefighters on the frontline would not come back in because there were more people to rescue. Their own homes and the fire station were all flooded but they refused to give up until they had helped all the locals.
“Firefighters from as far away as Motherwell joined the rescue effort, which was a great example of the advantages of a national service.”
The keen golfer, who dreamed of becoming a firefighter as a child after watching “the big red lorries” speeding round Edinburgh, says there are two images that sum up the service he is so proud to have been a part of.
He said: “There are two pictures in the last five years which, to me, capture firefighting perfectly.
“The first is the dramatic silhouette of the retained firefighter carrying the baby down the ladder to safety during the devastating Cameron House fire. The second is an image of a little girl clinging to rescue swimmer Jim Snedden in the Mediterranean after he went to help with the refugee crisis.”
Alasdair – who has rescued a wedding dress and dozens of cats and dogs as well as men, women and children – said he is proud of the legacy he is leaving behind but wishes he could do it all over again.
The grandad of five, whose son James is also a firefighter, said: “I’m hugely emotional about stepping down. I’ve been a firefighter for 36 years and wish I could go back and do it all again.
“When I got the phone call to say I had got the job, my first emotion was elation, then the responsibility hit me. Public safety was at stake and I could not fail.
A young child is taken down a ladder at Cameron House Hotel after it caught fire last year (Image: Jim Slight / SWNS.com)
“Throughout my time as chief, the two things that have kept me awake at night are the safety of my staff and getting the job right.”
He added: “Creating a national service is the best thing that ever happened. It was founded on the need to save money.
“The Fire Service were in the middle of a huge financial crisis. If we had stayed as eight separate forces, I was afraid the savings were going to be made on the frontline. By creating a national service, it gave us the chance to stand up to the financial side of things.
“When I started out, there were 356 fire stations in Scotland and, five years on, there are still 356 fire stations, which is something I am very proud of.”
Alasdair, whose ambition once he retires is to get his golf handicap down to single figures, says the key to the Fire Service’s success in the last five years is the ability to evolve.
He said: “As society changes and evolves, so must we. This includes training and equipping firefighters to respond to terror attacks and severe weather-related flooding while assisting a growing elderly and vulnerable population.
“Training firefighters to be first responders could help save hundreds of lives because crews will be able to keep people alive until paramedics take over.
“These are just some of the legacies that have been set into motion during my time as chief and, hopefully, the new chief will continue the journey.”
Alasdair, who lives in Dundee, added: “I’m proud to have been the first fire chief and I’m very grateful to have had the honour of working with such incredible people.”