Women firefighters are no longer a novelty
- During Dany Cotton’s 20 years with the London Fire Brigade she has risen through the ranks to become a Deputy Assistant Commissioner, and is the highest ranking operational woman firefighter in the UK. She was also the first woman firefighter in Britain to be awarded the Queen’s Fire Service Medal. The opinions expressed are her own. -
International Women’s Day on March 8, is significant for me as it’s a reminder how far women have come in all industries, but particularly my own.
The term “fireman” is no longer in use within the fire service, but is still part of everyday language, used as a generic term for people who fight fires. I’m proof that women can succeed in the fire service though, and I’m certainly not alone. More women are joining in operational front line roles – as firefighters – and making a real impact.
People sometimes say, “Why does it matter if firefighters are male or female? If my house is on fire, I don’t care who rescues me.” This is true of course – it really doesn’t matter – and all of London’s firefighters are highly trained and ready to respond to emergencies.
However, the role of the fire service is changing, and it’s no longer simply about attending emergencies. In fact, the work we do now isn’t just complemented by a diverse workforce, it demands one.
It’s no coincidence that fires, and fire deaths, are decreasing. Today’s fire and rescue service is very much about prevention rather than cure, with firefighters visiting vulnerable people in their homes, attending schools and working with businesses to ensure their premises are safe.
Making links with our community – talking to people on their level – means that people with different perspectives, life experiences, language skills and cultural knowledge are becoming increasingly valuable. Of course, as firefighters we all need to meet physical standards, but this job is not just about climbing ladders. We would prefer to save someone’s life by providing information or fitting a smoke alarm than by pulling them out of a burning building.
I joined the fire service 20 years ago, and in that time there have been major improvements for women. On my first day of training I did have doubts. It was hard both physically and mentally but I really enjoyed it. When I joined there were very few women in the service and some people were quite wary and suspicious of us, so that was a real challenge. Things have improved greatly since though, both in terms of the attitudes to women and the facilities for women on fire stations.
Now there’s nothing unusual about a woman arriving at London Fire Brigade’s training centre, and as an organisation we are committed to increasing the amount of women we see coming into the fire service. The Government has asked the UK’s fire and rescue service to aim at a target of 15 per cent of trainees joining the Brigade by 2013, being women. Though this is a challenge, it’s one we will work hard to meet as the benefits of a diverse workforce make sound business sense.
It’s all about reaching people who wouldn’t have considered the fire service as a career and asking them to think about it. As more women join, more will sit up and take notice. I didn’t sign up to be a trailblazer for others, but if I inspire people to follow in my footsteps then that can only be a good thing.
London is now home to well over 200 women firefighters and many became aware of the career at our open days where women can try out the kit we use, take some of the physical tests that they would be expected to pass, and speak to serving women firefighters about their experiences.
My personal experiences are very positive. As a Deputy Assistant Commissioner much of my role these days is managerial, but I’ll never forget my most rewarding experiences as a front line firefighter, such as saving a young couple from a fire in South London. There have been traumatic times too, like attending the Clapham rail crash in the 80s, but there have also been a lot of laughs. These experiences would have been the same regardless of my gender. As a woman, and as a firefighter, it’s been a great career.
So, this International Woman’s Day is a great opportunity to remember that the fire service has changed, and is still changing for the better. Women are not a novelty any more and are joining, and crucially, progressing on merit into more senior operational roles. There is still plenty more to do, but looking back 20 years, or even 10 years, London Fire Brigade is a different place. The culture has changed and is still changing.