Phoenix Rising

SEM Fire & Rescue

SEM’s manager Pierre Sidorow has been in this industrial sector and its cousin the defence industry for 24 years and is a mechanical engineer by background although, “I haven’t engineered too much in a long time” because of his increasingly managerial role in business development at a well-known Australian engineering group. In particular he was given the task of developing the company’s lean engineering and manufacturing systems and starting a search for business overseas. “There’s a long way to go but we are now beginning to do business with people in other countries.”

When SEM presented itself last year as a potential takeover target, Pierre and his managing director took a closer look and saw a company that had a skilled and experienced workforce, some good and long-standing contracts in the fire and rescue vehicle sector and, perhaps most importantly, “it had a facility that had obviously been created and customised to specially build fire trucks and emergency service vehicles. We knew the customers, we knew most of the suppliers and we knew the style of contract.” The synergies and opportunities were too good to overlook. Even at that stage “it was very easy to walk in and feel right at home, comfortable about what we were seeing, even though it wasn’t at that time working to its best.”

The operation was made trim and lean quickly, followed by a course in bringing in new business – it was important to do more tendering, compete for more projects, even small ones, to kick-start a resurgence. Pierre says that SEM’s suppliers were remarkably understanding of the situation. The reassuring presence in the background of the respected parent company as a backstop and the need to cooperate, all helped the survival and re-emergence of the company. Winning some new tenders proved the turning point; prime among them was the new medium tanker project for the CFA.

Initially there was a contract for 38 of these vehicles, designated as a long-term staple for the state’s fire service and the result of a lengthy and exhaustive engineering design exercise. The $270,000 Hino-based tanker, designed to provide quicker response to local incidents, seats five firefighters in individual bucket seats and incorporates all of the latest CFA safety features including a spray deluge system and drop-down fire protection curtains. It can deliver Class A foam through a Quenchmaster foam system and includes a GAAM Mk 300 two-stage pump which allows for a maximum flow rate of 900 litres per minute at 700 kPa, ensuring the tanker can be used at both bush and structure fires.

SEM won the tender for the CFA medium tanker against intense competition, in part, says Pierre, because it was locally located in a suburb of Ballarat. “There are benefits to the customer because we are just down the road, not a plane ride away, reducing our administration and delivery charges.” In fact SEM grew many years ago from the CFA itself, but Pierre says that was not a factor – it would be little more than a sentimental connection and in these days of ultra-tight budgets, especially in the public sector, sentiment counts for nothing in business. “It no doubt helps in terms of credibility but in reality, it’s such a competitive environment that commercial factors are absolutely paramount in what we do.”

Competition spurs innovation, and in order to better represent the company’s capabilities, and the markets it knows it can service and wants to go after, Pierre is spearheading a repositioning of the whole company. Even the very name SEM Fire & Rescue is being called into question as he feels it may be limiting them, not so much in terms of what it can do within the company as in what it does for the image its customers – and, crucially, potential customers – have of the company. Accordingly SEM has teams looking into a number of other disciplines, although Pierre acknowledges that many of the important basics – strength, ergonomics, reliability, and durability, for example – are broadly the same across a wide range of security application such as mining, aviation, or even defence.

The company’s mission is being changed to more generally being a “leading provider of specialised vehicles and associated products.” He says this is not an attempt to be all things to all people “but certainly in a vehicle environment we can do a whole lot of different things. Our motivation now is to give ourselves a wider purview of what we can do.”

One early proof is a contract with the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria for 15 roadside service vehicles as a follow-up to 16 delivered earlier this year. Another is the establishment of a division dealing in related equipment with a higher technology input – such as chemical analysers, surveillance equipment or thermal imaging. Vehicles fitted with such items are likely soon to be supplied to Western Australia, proving SEM’s national reach.

Another key indicator of SEM’s continuing success is its products’ recent showing at the Worksafe Victoria Annual Awards 2012. The company designed and delivered two trucks mid-2012: Breathing Apparatus (BA) and Decon (Hazmat), featuring numerous innovations specifically engineered to reduce potential injuries to their firemen operators, and which were named the ‘Best Solution to a Workplace Health and Safety Issue: Preventing Musculoskeletal Injuries.’

The delivery schedule for the CFA medium tanker was recently changed, the authorities now wanting more vehicles earlier in the contract. SEM was originally awarded half the total, the rest going to a Melbourne-based supplier, but has now won 45 of an additional 50 units to be delivered during the current financial year. This is both good and bad news for the company, which has to gear up to meet this very substantial increase in demand but also faces the contract finishing earlier than originally anticipated. Management is thus keenly aware that new business needs to flow in sooner rather than later, although Pierre points out that the CFA medium tanker is very possibly going to be a very long-term design and there is every chance it will keep the contract moving for some.

A modern fire truck is a whole lot more than just a glorified water bowser, he adds, with their electronics, computer systems, monitors for remote driving, spray protection, ultra high pressure hoses and sophisticated communications. Changes to the basic vehicles come along quite frequently – new emissions legislation, for example – and they affect the way in which the application design performs, especially given that vehicles such as rescue trucks operate quite close to their performance (payload) and weight distribution.

Certainly a lot of care has gone into its development, including a recent series of roadshows carried out by the CFA in which prototypes were examined by all rural fire fighting staff. The feedback from more than 1,200 members at 112 fire stations resulted in a list of some 144 improvements to the design – many of them minor but all aimed at optimising the effectiveness of these vital vehicles in the field. They also gave Pierre’s team a challenge in terms of incorporating the modifications while adhering to the delivery schedule, but the staff and the entire supply chain are responding well.

“We are running a very disciplined, lean production process, building in cell arrangements, and certainly before Christmas, we will reach the stage of turning out one vehicle every three working days.” SEM appears to have fire-proofed itself; “we are changing our focus on what we need to do for the future. Our continual appreciation and acceptance of change is what will allow us to continue to evolve.”

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

December 19, 2018, 9:21 AM AEDT