Chipping away at old stereotypes about women firefighters

March 6, 2010

DanyCottonDany Cotton lives in Orpington, Kent. During her 22 years with London Fire Brigade she has risen through the ranks to become a Deputy Assistant Commissioner, and is the highest ranking operational women in the UK fire and rescue service. She was also the first woman firefighter in the UK to be awarded the Queen’s Fire Service Medal. The opinions expressed are her own. Reuters will host a “follow-the-sun” live blog on Monday, March 8, 2010, International Women’s Day. Please tune in.–

As a woman in the fire service, I sometimes feel that part of my role is about myth busting. I’ve recently been helping the organisers of a national campaign aiming to promote firefighting careers to school aged girls, and this involved some live radio interviews.

This was nerve wracking at first but I soon got into my stride when the presenters started asking questions I’ve heard many times before. ” Surely women can’t do certain aspects of the job?” was mentioned, as was “You must have to undergo a different training process from the men?” and “aren’t women too short?” Then my favourite “how can a woman carry a man down a ladder from a burning building?”

For the record, women do the same job as men and take the same training and assessment process. You must have a good level of fitness, but if you can pass the physical tests your height is unimportant.

Could a woman – or a man for that matter – carry someone down a ladder from a burning building? Yes, both men and women can, and I was trained to do this at training school, but in 22 years of firefighting I’ve never seen anyone try it, and I doubt many of my colleagues have either. You might see this sort of manoeuvre in cinemas, but today’s firefighters will enter a building wearing their breathing apparatus, and rescue you as a team which is much safer for the firefighters and the person being rescued.

When we arrive at an emergency as a well trained professional group of firefighters, believe me, nobody questions who we are or where we’re from, they are just grateful that we are there to assist them in their time of need.

Whether we like it or not though, some people still see my career as a man’s role, so International Woman’s Day provides another good opportunity to keep chipping away at this stereotype. And this isn’t just about equality or fairness, as the skills women have are vital to the fire service both on the ‘fire ground’ and in the wide range of other work we do.

More so than ever, the fire and rescue service needs problem solvers and communicators. These skills are vital in an emergency but are just as important out in the community. In the old days we were only likely to meet the people we served after a fire, but now firefighters visit thousands of homes, businesses and schools every year and pass on life saving advice.

We know this approach works because the stats (fires, injuries, deaths, etc) back it up, but also because we turn up at fires where someone has survived because of a smoke alarm we fitted.

I’m not suggesting that being a firefighter is a job for all women, but neither is it a job for all men. If you like the idea of something different and worthwhile, it is a job for you. It can be physical, but you’ll also spend a considerable amount of time working with and helping people. It sounds like a cliché, but whether it’s through attending an emergency or passing on fire safety advice to a vulnerable person, there’s no better feeling than saving someone’s life.

I’ll be using International Women’s Day to keep promoting the fire and rescue service and the variety of careers on offer for women. It’s all about raising our profile and slowly putting the idea into the heads of young girls and women that it’s worth finding out what’s on offer.

There are so many opportunities once through the door including fire investigation, fire safety, training and head office or managerial roles. When I joined the Brigade I had no aspirations to be a manager, in fact I looked at many of the managers in awe, but now 90 percent of my role is management and office based. Like most uniformed officers though, I still attend emergencies and I would never want this to change. I enjoy having an influence on how the organisation works and the thing really that gets me out of bed in the morning is the chance to deal with difficult situations or crisis management, such as the recent heavy snow, where I helped to ensure our ability to respond to 999 calls wasn’t affected.

During my career, one of the roles I have most enjoyed was managing a fire station in Greenwich, which was a great balance between using my skills as a people manager and being close to the sharp end.

All of these roles are attainable for women and many of London Fire Brigade’s 230-plus operational women are forging great careers and making a real difference.

Aside from championing firefighting roles, as a senior officer I hope also to be able to influence the fire service in the future. As a major fire and rescue service based in the capital, my organisation is pretty diverse and has made great strides, but I want to see the same standards and policies across the board. Ultimately we want women to be able to expect the same facilities and policies in both major metropolitan Brigades and smaller services with fewer resources.

If you’re reading this blog and thinking that the fire service would never be for you, your friend, or your daughter, it might be time to think again?


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

Great article. As a member of a rural fire department for three years, it saddened me to see and hear the way women were treated. It’s wonderful to read of women making such great strides in firefighting! Congratulations!

Posted by Lynette Monteiro | Report as abusive

This is great to read. Too many times young women express an interest in certain jobs and their friends or family – including other women – raise their eyebrows and give the impression that “you can’t do that – it isnt a woman’s job’

Posted by Margaret O | Report as abusive

“For the record, women do the same job as men and take the same training and assessment process. You must have a good level of fitness, but if you can pass the physical tests your height is unimportant.”

Um, for the record, haven’t the test standards been weakened to ensure that women can pass them?

Posted by Stephen Parker | Report as abusive