Firefighters should no longer be called ‘firemen’ because it puts females off taking up the job, according to the Commissioner of the London Fire Brigade. Dany Cotton said she wants people to drop the term as part of a drive to encourage more women to become firefighters. Gulf Fire Editor Neil Wallington reports.
Dany Cotton, who became the first female commissioner of the London Fire Brigade at the start of the year, will launch a drive to retire the term at the Women of the Year Awards. The latest UK Home Office statistics show that in 2016 only 5 per cent, or approximately 1,800, of firefighters in England were women. That figure was up more than a fifth from 2011.
Dany Cotton, who leads the largest fire brigade in England, said: “The first woman firefighter joined London Fire Brigade in 1982 and it is ridiculous that 35 years later people are still surprised to see women firefighters or calling them firemen.”
Relating to her new the role earlier this year she talked about what it is like to be a woman in the service, and Cotton is candid about being one of the few women in a male-dominated workforce. “One single thing that would help bring more women into the service? Stop saying ‘fireman’. How many people still use that?” she says. “It would make a real difference if people stopped. Why did they have to go for Fireman Sam? What’s wrong with Firefighter Sam? We have to change that perception of a six foot hairy-arsed bloke who can kick a door down. Women make fantastic firefighters,” she says. “If all you want to do is leap on the big red shiny engine and be a hero then the fire service is probably not for you anyway.”
At 47, Cotton now has 102 London fire stations, 4,800 uniformed firefighters and 800 other staff under her command and is responsible for frontline response to emergencies in the UK’s capital city where 100,000 incidents had to be attended last year, from fires to flooding to major road and tram accidents, and where the terrorism threat is ranked as “severe”.
“You can’t help but worry about terrorism but if you let that overwhelm you then you’d never come to work. If you didn’t let some things scare you a little, you’d become a bit blasé,” she says. “You join the fire service to save lives and you cannot do that from home.”
It is ability rather than qualifications that impresses her. “I hated education with a passion. My parents wanted me to go to university but that wasn’t for me. Then I saw an advert in the Croydon Advertiser and I cut it out – it said the fire service was especially welcoming recruits who were women or from black and ethnic minority backgrounds.” Her parents were horrified, thinking she would be bullied and broken in a macho environment. “I was 18 and had no concept that a woman couldn’t or shouldn’t do anything. I came from a family with strong matriarchs, an East End grandmother was one, and I simply had the view ‘Why can’t I?’”
When Cotton left training college in 1988 she was the only one of the three women in her year to make it through the course, and the 30th woman to have joined a 6,000-strong London Fire Brigade. Within months she was at the Clapham rail crash, where 35 people died.
“The first day I just thought ‘crikey’ – it was very, very macho. I had to prove myself twice over, four times over. Some of the blokes were quite hostile but it was a mix, some of them were fine,” she says. “The management was clearly under pressure to change the force but the people under them were definitely not prepared for change. The issue for some is that if a woman can do the job, then it isn’t the big hero job it was. It de-machos their role.”
Many of those attitudes still remain and Cotton believes UK fire brigades lag behind the UK police service in tackling sexism and opportunities for women. “It is definitely part of my role to change that. A lot of it is about understanding the role of a firefighter. Perhaps 70% of our work now is fire prevention, social engagement, communicating with different types of people in the community. Our fire stations are safe haven’s 24/7 – if you are a woman walking home alone, or a teenager running from a gang, then knock on your fire station door.”
She continues: “We are identifying people most at risk, getting smoke alarms in. The biggest tragedy in this day and age is that people are still dying because they haven’t got a smoke alarm. We will come round and fit you one, for free.”
While house fires are in decline in the UK as a result of better regulations over combustible furniture and less cigarette smoking, poverty and mental health remain major risk factors for deadly fires. “People with no money tend to huddle close to a fire or light a candle or fry food because it’s cheap. Hoarding is really on the rise and a big issue – not only are people hoarding combustible material but also they won’t be able to get out of a room easily, or a firefighter won’t be able to get in. It’s a very dangerous situation.”
Despite her rank, she still misses the red shiny engine. “I do miss being in the cab, although I never trained as a driver because I just didn’t want the hassle. A woman fire engine driver? Just non-stop criticism and comments and cracks about my reversing. It would be unbearable. No, it wasn’t worth it. I do still get abuse now. Mostly it’s comments from retired firefighters who think a woman cannot do the job, or that I only got the job because I’m a woman. It doesn’t occur to them that I might be the best person to do the job.”
And for Cotton, doing her job does not mean being stuck behind a desk: “I still go out to fires fairly regularly, although these days I don’t go in the cab but I can go in my own car kitted out with blue lights. At least there is no one to criticise my driving!”
For more information, go to www.london-fire.gov.uk