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Ever thought about joining the London Fire Brigade? If starting a family has made you reassess your life and want to do something that makes a difference or if you’ve just always wanted to be a fire fighter then the good news is that London Fire Brigade is about to start recruiting again and it is keen to attract more women applicants.
The application process involves filling in a form, an assessment day and a medical. The process is competitive. Last year’s recruitment round drew around 1,600 applications, 150 of which were from women.
Some 325 of these were shortlisted. Ninety of these were sent to the brigade’s training school. Just seven were women. Previously there have been several years between recruitment rounds, but because of potential early retirements there has been a much shorter gap between recruitment rounds this time.
The requirements for becoming a fire fighter in the London Fire Brigade include three years’ residency in London and a pass in the LGV driving theory test. There is no age limit for applicants, but they must pass the fitness test.
Fitness trainer Gemma Eldridge has been with the London Fire Brigade for 13 years. She says women face the same assessment as men and tend to struggle more with the physical tests.
That means they may have to train more to pass them. She adds that the women she has trained who have got into the brigade are often better than the men. “They tend to be stronger, fitter and have better posture as they have had to work harder to get in,” she says.
I attended a Women’s Open Day earlier this week with four women candidates to get an idea of the kind of tests those who apply have to pass. All the candidates had applied for the London Fire Brigade before and were clearly committed to getting in.
One, Emma Arkle, had been trying since 2009 and had done voluntary community work with children and schools, teaching about fire safety.
The first test was putting on the equipment, including gloves, boots and helmet, which are much heavier than you might imagine. Next came the ladder which was four storeys high.
We were taught how to lock one leg over the top of the ladder rungs, lean back and let go. Wearing a harness, we each climbed to the fourth storey and did the leg lock, leaned back and had to read out a number on a storey below to make sure we were not closing our eyes for fear of falling.
The test was timed to check that we were confident with heights. I confess I am not and I got a bit stuck on the leg lock because the firefighter trousers are quite stiff, making bending your knee fairly difficult. At least that’s my excuse.
The next test was dragging a 50 kilo dummy around 20 feet in 41 seconds. As the trainers pointed out, most adults weight quite a bit more than that these days. Then came a test of our ability to assemble and disassemble equipment fast – slightly less strenuous than the other tests.
The fourth test was of upper body strength. We had to lift a bar with only our upper body to chest level and then above our heads, first with a five kilo weight on it and then with 10 kilos more on top.
This was to simulate what it might feel like to help load a ladder onto a fire engine. Two of the women managed both weights. Two managed five kilos and one managed none. Upper body strength is not my forte, despite having spent the last 16 years lifting children.
The fifth test was my favourite. Ominously called The Cage, it involved crawling around in a cage-like structure which bore quite a few similarities with a children’s indoor play centre. The first bit was just with a breathing mask on.
On the way back a mesh covering was put over the mask to simulate the effects of smoke, meaning you couldn’t see anything on the return journey. This all had to be completed in five minutes. Years of going to children’s play areas paid off. I passed.
Finally came the test that everyone said they were dreading. We have five minutes and 47 seconds to run 100 yards with a hose, run 100 more yards, walk 400 yards carrying two wound-up hoses, walk 100 yards with a wound-up hose held at chest height, run 300 yards, walk 400 yards carrying a long tube over one shoulder and a bucket, run 400 yards and then walk 400 yards carrying a barbell.
My five minutes and 47 seconds thankfully ran out just after I attempted to lift the barbell.
One of our team of candidates was Rhiain Bonnici, a mum of three, aged two, five and seven who had had a bad night’s sleep courtesy of one of her children. She only narrowly failed an assessment day last year due to illness.
The other women did a range of jobs. There was a carer, an apprentice in the construction industry who had originally trained as a graphic designer, and an office administrator. At the end we were given our scores. Rhiain came out on top, passing everything except the last test, which she missed by just one second.
I failed the majority of tests, mainly due to poor upper body strength, but Gemma, a working mum, was very encouraging. She suggested where we could all make improvements.
The London Fire Brigade offers free personalised training to those who want to apply. This is only available up to the point where people hand in their application form. I was told it would take around six months of training to get me up to scratch.
I might have failed, but I came away feeling that, if you really want to do it, passing the assessment test for the London Fire Brigade is more possible than you might think.