Kent’s highest ranking firefighter hangs up his kit for the last time

Sean in 1986 and now

When Sean Bone-Knell applied to be a Thanet firefighter at Kent Fire and Rescue Service in 1984, he was told the window to apply had closed and to try again in a few years.

Fortunately his passion to join the fire service prevailed, and two years later, at 19-years-old, his dream came true. Now, 33 years on, having climbed to be the highest ranking fire officer in the service as Director of Operations, he’s hanging up his helmet for the last time.

Sean said: “Being able to follow my career of choice from a young age and help people in their moment of need has been so precious. I have never lost my drive and enthusiasm for firefighting and I’m still very much interested in every part of it and have always wanted to be involved in improving service for customers and staff alike.”

Having started his career in Thanet serving as a firefighter for seven years, where he ‘enjoyed every minute’ and learned a lot from his seniors on station, Sean began his journey through the ranks which saw him serve across Kent.

Sean said: “The fire service has come a long way in my time. The personal protective equipment (PPE) our firefighters wear now is so good, but when I joined it was rubber boots, plastic leggings, a wool tunic, cork helmet and gardening gloves. Your ears were your temperature gauge and when the tips of your ears started to burn it was time to either get down or get out.

“We didn’t used to have mobile technology so no sat navs, mobile phones or mobile data terminals. It was all paper based and learning your station ground was crucial, with regular night shift sessions on topography learning short cuts and small roads we might not have known existed, to help us reach people in need more quickly.

Sean with wife Teresa and daughters Emily and Lucy (L-R)

“One of the biggest organisational changes has been how we look after our people. We are so much more people focused, and the support we provide to staff I feel is brilliant. It really is ok to not be ok now, compared to my early days when not being ok felt like you were looking at the exit door to your career.”

Sean has attended thousands of incidents over the years, and there are a few that stick in his mind for different reasons.

He said: “Attending a house fire where two children died will stay with me forever. That really made me think about what is precious in life and how we must ensure we teach children fire safety in the home, as the fire started in a truly preventable way. As a service we now place a huge emphasis on education prevention work, which is fantastic.

“I attended a collapsed building in Ramsgate early in my career and that was where I had my first experience of carrying out CPR on a poor soul who had been crushed under the masonry. Sadly, he died and that will always stay with me.

“Working during the Great Storm on 1987 was truly an unforgettable experience. I was working the height vehicle and we spent all day repairing roofs and taking down unstable chimney pots. For many weeks after we had a large list of incidents to go out to every day and it gave us experience working in some really tricky situations.”

Over the years Sean’s dedication to the fire service hasn’t gone unrecognised, and last year he was awarded the prestigious Kent medal in what he describes as ‘a truly moving moment’. The Kent Medal is a rare accolade recognising outstanding service and commitment to KFRS and the wider community.

His dedication has stretched further than Kent too, having held three roles as part of the National Fire Chief’s Council – Marine Firefighting Lead Officer, Road Safety Lead Officer, and Dementia Lead Officer – through which he was able to help steer national policy and make a difference within fire services and communities across the UK.

Looking to the future, Sean doesn’t plan to cut ties with his fire family completely.

He said: “I’ll have a couple of months off and then I’ve secured an associate inspector post with Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services to keep me active, and I’ll see where life takes me from there. Hopefully there’ll be some holidays with my family and a return for my golf clubs too.

“To the Kent community I’d like to say thank you for supporting Kent Fire and Rescue Service, and I truly hope if you’ve ever required our services that we have assisted you well. I truly believe you have a fire and rescue service to be proud of.”

KFRS Chief Executive Ann Millington said: “Sean has made a significant contribution to the people of Kent and nationally. He has championed better awareness and support for people living with dementia, and has lead national work on reducing deaths and injuries on the road.

“He will be very much missed as a great colleague and leader.”

KFRS’ Assistant Director for Operational Response, Chris Colgan, will takeover as Operations Director from Wednesday, 1 April, with more than 30 years experience working for the fire service.