Sailesh Parmar: Fire Service Manager to PBSA Fire Safety
12 February 2024
Sailesh Parmar joined Unite Students as Fire Safety Manager for special projects, in 2022. Before that, he spent more than 16 years working for the fire and rescue service and has brought with him an impressive knowledge of fire safety and regulatory processes.
Here, Sailesh describes how he finds working for a PBSA sector leader and its diversity. His role concentrates on the external work to buildings.
You worked for the fire and rescue service for more than 16 years. What attracted you to Unite Students?
I enjoyed my time in the fire and rescue service, I learnt a lot, made many friends with whom I still meet. It felt like the right time to assess my options – I’d had three years in management covering building regulations and consultations, and I wanted to explore a new career path.
I was keen on the next climb on the ladder and when the Fire Safety Manager position at Unite Students was advertised – focused on the façade of buildings – I knew I had the experience and knowledge and wanted to challenge myself and make a difference. This role was perfect for that.
What drew you to fire safety in the first place?
My family has a business background and for me, I’ve always wanted to work in a job where I could be helpful and make a difference. When I got into the fire industry in 2006, very early on I knew where I wanted to go – for me it was all about community service. Working my way up through the fire service, there was a particular position I wanted to be involved in – and that was the fire safety inspecting role.
That role is all about keeping businesses safe and within the fire service you’re either doing community fire safety, which is the domestic area – homes, for example, or business fire safety.
I was successful in landing the fire safety inspecting role in business fire safety to support companies and educate them on how to avoid a fire and to comply with the legislation. This role gives you the power to enforce the legislation if business owners aren’t complying, but equally it’s about helping businesses achieve compliance. A lot of my focus went towards that, for just over two years.
It gave me a lot of satisfaction, that business owners around Hampshire and further afield were able to understand, and to meet objectives to reduce potential fire incidents. I thrive on responsibility and I’ve been able to transfer that across to Unite Students – where I cover the whole portfolio, across Britain – I’m just doing it with a slightly different hat on.
How difficult is it to ensure consistency across the Group?
There are some properties where I’m only just starting to put my touch and expertise into, in terms of changes and developments. With my fire safety background, I have a holistic view of the internal and external aspects of all our buildings. So, I’m aware of the challenges and what we need to do to comply and offer advice towards that.
I work very closely with others in the Fire Safety Team and we tackle fire safety issues together when necessary – between us we cover all areas of expertise. In newer buildings it should be less of a challenge, but even though new buildings are built to compliance today, there could be some changes that are needed in future.
It’s never perfect and there can always be room for improvement, even though we’re building properties to meet compliance today. I’m comfortable with, and have got experience of, working on both older and newer properties and understand how the buildings in relation to fire safety should work.
How much experience does the Fire Safety Team at Unite Students have?
I have 16 years’ experience from within the fire service and over 10 years’ experience in fire safety specifically. I completed a fire safety development programme spanning from 2013 to 2018, which helped me become competent and a specialist in my subject matter. Others in the team have a health and safety background, as well as fire safety, and operational firefighting and fire safety in higher risk buildings.
I bring regular fire safety experience as an inspector and how to inspect buildings and compliance – we’re inspecting our own, so our audit process should be spot on; including where to look, what documents we need – all of this is in place. We’ve got that ability and experience to advise professionally, competently, and efficiently.
I’ve also got a building regulations background, so I know how properties should be built. That helps from a development side and, also, with older buildings. Our existing stock has, in the past, needed to be updated to achieve compliance today. Overall, we have a professional and competent Fire Safety Team, that is very capable and will ensure that Unite Students continues to be the best in class along this journey.
What do you do on a day-to-day basis?
Typically, my day can vary from responding to queries on specific projects, taking calls to address certain design elements, and site visits – usually on properties that are having work done to them, or where we’re carrying out investigations. The work really varies. We have internal discussions too, with our own project teams.
The range of people we’re dealing with is vast. You could be talking to Property, Legal, Marketing, Risk and Assurance, Communications, Operations or the Finance team – about budgets, for example. You get the full range of activity in the Fire Safety Team, because what we do has an impact on various teams but most importantly the Operations Teams and the students in our buildings. Internally, I have had interactions with many colleagues and continue to do so.
Externally, I liaise with contractors, architects, fire engineers, building control and planning consultants, local authorities, fire and rescue services and university partners. Understanding these stakeholders and staying in touch with them builds working relationships and ensures that the right people are communicated with for various activities.
There are a lot of discussions over the phone – people are really keen to help Unite Students achieve its objectives. What we need is the appropriate relationships built on externally to help support this – and that’s what we have. It’s safe to say, this role keeps me very busy.
Fire safety is critical in any industry, but is there even more pressure in the PBSA sector, because of the number of residents in our buildings?
Yes, absolutely. We need to look after our students first and foremost – we inspect and make sure the relevant processes and fire safety provisions are in place. I’m now on the other side of fire safety, working for the type of business I was advising previously, and helping to put in those measures that will keep students safe and ensure Unite Students complies with fire safety legislation.
The façade is equally as important as the internal elements of a building. For me, it’s very important we get the correct solutions, the right teams to deliver our objectives and to make our buildings safer and compliant but ultimately to keep everyone as safe.
Are you regularly in contact with fire services across Britain?
Yes, we’re regularly in touch with fire services across England, Scotland and Wales. It’s a given for the Fire Safety Team and Special Projects Team. The fire service has a duty to regulate and enforce the fire safety order. We have a duty to comply with that legislation, the new Building Safety Act and other legislation introduced in the last five years.
I’m poacher turned gamekeeper, so for me it’s a different scenario now. I understand how the fire service works and that’s a key benefit for Unite Students – that we’ve got people who understand the regulatory processes and requirements. It’s so important that we’re working very closely with them.
What would a successful year look like to you?
Playing a key role in successful projects being delivered year on year, leading to safer and compliant buildings, and ultimately removing fire impairment measures from our buildings so that the Operations Teams can get on and provide a best-in-class service and experience to our students.
By the end of summer 2024, we should have another batch of projects that are complete, in terms of façade remediation. We are supporting the business in reducing costs from the fire impairment measures and removing the burden on Operations Teams with the fire impairment measures. Ultimately, we will hand the buildings back to the business in a better, safer position than they were.
Is Unite Students a diverse place to work?
Absolutely, I’ve felt welcome from day one. There are good managers within Unite Students and I’ve been lucky to have great leaders. They continuously praise and encourage me and know what they will get from me, as well as rewarding the hard work I do. We’ve got good people and teams around us – I’ve walked into a very good environment and felt comfortable from very early on. I’ve been able to really spread my wings and put my mark on things I’m involved with – I’m achieving the results that I want to, which is pleasing.
We have a diverse workforce and group of people that we work with, especially within my team. Looking across the business, when I visit city teams, I see so many different people from different backgrounds, and that’s evident across senior leaders as well. Unite Students is clearly an equal opportunities employer. To be able to come into Unite Students and work with such diverse teams has been brilliant and leads to better results and a place to work.