London’s fire chief calls on more women to join the brigade


London Fire Brigade’s first woman Commissioner is calling for the capital’s women to apply to be firefighters as part of the latest firefighter recruitment drive.

Over 300 women are already London firefighters, but that is only 7% of the operational workforce and the Commissioner wants to increase that to 18%.

Dany Cotton joined the Fire Brigade at the age of 18 and started serving as a firefighter at Wimbledon fire station in 1988. She has worked her way up through the ranks of the organisation. She tells why taking on the job is the best career move she ever made… What motivated you to join the fire service?

Dany Cotton: I wanted a job that was practical, outdoors, required teamwork and meant you could help people. Working in the London Fire Brigade ticks all those boxes and more. I’ve never been one for wanting to sit behind a desk so it really appealed to me.

Growing up I was an Air Cadet and I have always been an active person, so working for the fire service suited me and my personality.

Wanting to make that difference and communicating well are just as essential to this job as being physically able.

Even after 29 years, I think this is the best job in the world and still absolutely love it.

WM: What do you consider are the high points of your career so far?

DC: There are so many highpoints. At the top of the list I would say there is nothing better than knowing that you saved someone’s life. It’s a great feeling knowing that because of the actions you took, someone is walking around on this planet. As part of my work, I’ve dragged people out of burning buildings. I’ve helped cut people out of cars who have been in an accident. But I’ve also done talks in schools and told kids how to escape a fire. That’s important because they then have the life skills to save themselves and their family if the worst happened.

In 1988, only a few months after I finished my training, I got the call to the Clapham train crash. Two commuter trains had collided at Clapham Junction train station. Thirty-five people lost their lives and over 100 people were injured. Such terrible incidents make you reflect on those occasions when you are doing difficult, challenging things and things that people would think are impossible. The sense of achievement is huge.

Without doubt, being the first woman to receive the Queen’s Fire Service Medal in 2004 at Buckingham Palace for services to the fire service is a high point of my career too. For me personally, being the first woman Fire Commissioner, having a family and being proud of what you do are all part of the equation.

WM: Why would you like to see more women apply to be firefighters and what do you think women can bring to and get out of a career in the fire service?

DC: Women make great firefighters and I firmly believe women can bring something different to the role. The strongest teams are made up of a mixed group of people. We can’t all be six feet tall and strong enough to break down heavy doors as there might be an incident where you need to be small enough to get in a tiny open window. Thinking of a smart way around a problem is key and teamwork to solve a challenge is important.

The role of the firefighter has developed enormously over the past few decades. The fire service is about responding to fires, but as the number of call-outs we receive has fallen, we are doing more fire prevention, protection and education work to stop fires from happening in the first place. The role of a firefighter now encompasses that.

We work closely with communities and are doing a lot more preventing fires rather than running into burning buildings.  Of course being fit and wanting to keep fit is important, but there is so much more to the role of a firefighter now. Nowadays we are doing Home Fire Safety visits which calls on an different set of skills. For example, going into people’s homes and advising them on how to improve things requires empathy and excellent communication skills. If you have a community who have a strong faith, part of that might be to have rituals which revolve around cooking and having candles. We need to engage with them to advise them on the best way to avoid fires. The same applies to vulnerable older people who are feeling the cold. They might be putting themselves at risk by pulling a heater too close to themselves and their clothing. It’s about recognising the signs and having a conversation with people so we can help them alleviate risks.

The decline in fires is a credit to firefighters, fire engineers, fire investigators, community safety specialists and many other staff who have made huge progress in educating people about the importance of fire safety. This list of jobs shows the diversity in the profession and women can make a career out of any one of these specialisms.

WM: What are the key elements of the firefighter development programme? 

DC: The programme is a three-stage modular approach. First there is Stage 1. Prior to employment, this starts with a pre-learning programme where some initial theory will be taught by video presentations.  Similar to a foundation course, the basic concepts of the firefighter role are explained.  This is done at the trainee’s own pace and currently lasts up to 10 weeks.

The second stage is a combination of classroom and practical sessions where trainers will be assessed on theory alongside practical issues.

Trainees work full time and undertake an 11-week dedicated, non residential training input course. Trainees have classroom and practical sessions on subjects such as fitness, health and safety, legislation, fire science, handling of equipment – how to use knots and lines, hoses and hydrants, use of ladders etc. as well as key skills such as water management, Breathing Apparatus (BA) etc.

The third and final stage is on the job development and consolidation of learning at a fire station and it can take between 18-36 months to confirm competence in role (via a Personal Development Record).  In addition, two (two-day) workshops have to be completed to confirm that knowledge and understanding has been retained in the workplace.

All the training relates to the agreed National Occupational Standards for the role of firefighter.

WM: What do you think might be putting off women from applying and how can this can be countered?

DC: I think the role of a firefighter has a stereotypical image and that can put women off. If there are not enough role models, women might not even consider it as a job for them. I think we need to change the messaging so they do consider it as a profession they can do. More explanation needs to be given about what it entails to be a modern-day firefighter.

I feel privileged to be a role model for other women and I want to say come and join me. I can say from personal experience it is a good job and career – it offers great promotional opportunities. The diverse range of specialisms means women can take on any one of the different avenues from community safety, fire investigation to rope rescues, and water rescue. It is a skilled professional job and every day is different; and it is challenging. You never know what you are going to face, but one thing you can guarantee is that it will be rewarding.

The general public do love firefighters and we are held in high regard. It is an honour to be part of that. Joining the fire service is like joining a great family. It’s now time to get more women into the family.

*London Fire Brigade are currently recruiting for firefighters, find out more information and apply to be a firefighter via the website.

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