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Building the best of the best

In 2018, Serco was awarded the contract to provide fire and rescue services at the King Fahd International Airport (KFIA) in Dammam, Saudi Arabia. It is the largest airport in the world by area and averages more than nine million passengers annually. The challenge presented to Serco was to upskill and certify the existing team of more than 100 firefighters to an internationally accredited standard in line with regulatory requirements. 

Leigh Cockman is Chief Fire Officer and Contract Manager for Serco at KFIA, bringing more than 20 years’ experience in aviation firefighting to the role. Working with the Fire Science Academy in Jubail, Leigh has led the implementation of an intensive 18-week training programme that covers the latest techniques in operational firefighting. It has set a new benchmark in Saudi Arabia and our colleagues in the first cohort even made news headlines as the first aviation firefighters in the Kingdom to achieve it. 

“They loved it,” says Leigh. “For many, training and experience had been limited to the airport. We’re sending them into a new environment with new challenges and, on completion, they come back to us brimming with confidence, knowledge and practical skill sets. They light up when asked about receiving this level of training and personal development, eagerly talking about all they’ve learned and experienced.” 

Training is not the only area in which changes have been made: 

“We’ve upgraded many ways of working and introduced more structure and direction. There were questions and challenges, naturally, but everyone can see it’s as much for them as for the airport. For example, the old shift patterns required frequent commuting, but some of the team live up to 100km away. We realigned the schedule and reduced that travel by half. This proactive approach has increased productivity during shifts whilst giving them more quality time at home.” 

Engaging the team in change through compromise and mentoring has proven very effective: 

“We look at where we are today and where we want to be tomorrow, seeking common ground where understanding and ownership can flourish.” 

Internal career progression is another area in which Leigh is determined to make a big difference: 

“When we arrived, there were only a handful of Saudi nationals above the main firefighter role. We asked: why recruit expats and contractors when we’re developing new talent right here? Providing a career path through internal promotion is crucial for the future of the service and building that on the right foundations is paramount.” 

Leigh believes he has some future ‘superstars’ on the team, but the right mentality is key: 

“Everyone understands that Serco can and will develop them, if they embrace the career, embrace the change and strive to succeed with 100% effort. Several members of the team could just walk into management roles elsewhere, but as one has stated, he wants my job in the future, and he knows he’ll need the experience at every level to get there and be successful. They’ll all go far with that attitude and approach.” 

The impacts of helping the team think and feel differently about their work go beyond the individuals: 

“We’re building a stronger team by building pride in our profession and pride in our ‘family’ – in which we all look after each other. Beyond that, we’re changing perceptions of working in aviation fire and rescue – turning it from ‘just a job’ into a meaningful career path. We’re also raising Serco’s profile as an employer. People can see that Serco will invest in them, develop them and help to set them up for a lifetime of success.”