Paula Hartwell left college without much idea of what she wanted to do. “I knew I wanted to be active and that I didn’t fancy sitting behind a desk all day. I liked being in the community and I liked working in a team. I saw an advert in the local press for the fire service and went along,” she says.
Twenty six years later she is now an assistant group commander in the Surrey Fire and Rescue Service, having become the first woman fire fighter in Surrey. In that time she has also had three daughters.
After applying for the fire fighter job in 1992, Paula was invited to a two-day assessment which included several mental and physical aptitude tests. This was followed by an interview and a training course once she was accepted. It had not occurred to her when she applied that she might be very much in the minority as a woman in the fire service.
Paula says she had a lot of encouragement from the other male trainees. “Everyone really gets behind each other,” she says. “The training does push you to your limits. It is not supposed to be easy, but to bring out the best in you. The assessment tests spot potential rather than the finished product and that potential is honed in the training process.”
Paula says applicants need to like a challenge, be a people person, enjoy being a valued member of the community and not be afraid of having a voice and taking on something they have never done before. They have to be fit, but the service has good training facilities and the focus on fitness establishes healthy habits for life, she says. She thinks a fear of failure is the biggest barrier facing women, but stereotypes about firefighting being a male job and not being family friendly are also a factor. “Women can be reluctant to give it a go, but just taking that first step is important. Taster days are a great way to do that,” she says.
Both Paula and her husband are fire fighters. They met through work and have been together for 20 years. The couple have three daughters, aged 20, 17 and 12, and Paula feels her job and the fact that she and her husband share domestic tasks mean that their children do not believe there are jobs that girls cannot do.
She says that far from the stereotype, fire fighting is family friendly. “It is a really great job for working mums. There is very good support for maternity leave and time off for dependants,” she states.
When she announced her pregnancy each time, Paula was moved away from operational duties to focus on other work, such as prevention or fire safety. After each maternity leave, she was helped by occupational health to regain her physical fitness.
The service also offers flexible working, including the potential for job shares, reduced hours contracts and day shifts. “It is more flexible than it has ever been,” says Paula.
Paula, who is 46, has steadily climbed the career ladder over the last 26 years.
After 10 years she rose to crew commander, then to watch commander and now as assistant group commander in the Spelthorne area, she manages a team of 40. It is her job to make sure her staff are meeting their requirements, to work with the local authority and borough and to provide leadership on bigger incidents, but she also still attends incidents.
Her role involves a lot of community work, including talking to schools about fire safety and about her career in the fire service. She says prevention and other community work has become an increasing part of the service. The service also deals with fewer domestic fires nowadays, but there is a broader range of incidents that they are called to, including terrorist and chemical-related incidents. Paula’s role involves investigating chemical incidents. “The role you can have in the service is as big as your imagination,” she says.
She admits that fire fighting can be emotionally and physically challenging, but says she prefers to focus on the fact that the service saves lives and that even in terrible circumstances something can be learnt which can be used to prevent similar incidents in the future.
Paula attended the Grenfell fire since Surrey has the tallest fire ladder in the country. “I saw first hand the scale of the incident,” she says. “Firefighting is a very emotional job. It was very difficult to follow procedures when you were there and just wanted to help, but our training and processes mean we can do things without placing ourselves in excessive danger.”
There is also a good support network to help fire fighters deal with the emotional side of the job, including helplines and occupational health experts. Asked if parents might be put off by the danger of the job, Paula says it is about having confidence in your skills and training and that deaths are rare. “Our processes and procedures help to keep us safe,” she says.