Breaking the Fire Service glass ceiling: Getting women to the top

Cornwall Fire and Rescue Service announced recently that Kathryn Billing was to be its first woman Chief Fire Officer; this was swiftly followed by North Wales Fire and Rescue Service confirming the return of Dawn Docx, on promotion to be its new Chief Fire Officer later this year.

This is notable because it means that eight of the now 49 fire and rescue services across the UK are led by women. There is much to be learned from those women already holding principal officer roles that can help women in more junior roles secure promotion in the future. Here is a brief look at, and some advice from, those in post today.

Women make up half the population, but only account for 17.3 per cent of the workforce in fire and rescue services. Restrict that to operational roles, then the number plummets to just seven per cent. The table below left shows the percentage of women at each rank, with either end of the spectrum looking relatively better. The reality is, the numbers move upwards at a glacial pace.

On a more positive note, Gloucestershire is an outlier and leads the way with women accounting for nearly a quarter of its wholetime workforce. Gloucestershire also has a woman in a principal officer post as Jean Cole moves from Hereford and Worcester to become ACO. Jean’s remit covers business planning, performance and transformation. Wayne Bowcock, the current CFO, is moving to Royal Berkshire, so this leaves a vacancy for the top job.


Rank 2011 2020
Principal officer 3.9 per cent 7.2 per cent
Area Manager 3.2 per cent 6.4 per cent
Group Manager 2.7 per cent 3.9 per cent
Station Manager* 2.3 per cent 5.0 per cent
Watch Manager* 2.2 per cent 4.7 per cent
Crew Manager* 2.7 per cent 4.4 per cent
Firefighter* 4.9 per cent 8.2 per cent
* Includes on-call staff

Source: Home Office Fire Statistics, FIRE1108 Percentage of women by rank


Direct Entry

There is a glimmer of hope with the new direct entry scheme under development by the NFCC. Led by Dawn Whittaker, CFO of East Sussex, and Rod Hammerton, CFO of Shropshire, the plan is to start recruiting from outside the service at station and area manager levels from September 2022. That is not just women, of course.

Launching the project, the NFCC stated: ‘It will be a nationally agreed programme that is robust, quality-assured and credible. It will be centrally co-ordinated and supported at a national level, even if it is delivered at a regional and local level’.

In the meantime, there are just 20 women holding principal officer posts across the UK. Three years ago, there were 13, so that is an improvement. Recognising that there are many women holding senior, director level positions in fire and rescue services in areas such as HR, finance and corporate services, this article focuses on the principal officer roles of chief, deputy chief and assistant chief fire officer.

The table below shows which services are currently led by women, noting that Becci Bryant will retire in October.


Kathryn Billing Cornwall County
Dawn Whittaker East Sussex Combined
Jo Turton Essex PFCC
Ann Millington Kent Combined
Dawn Docx North Wales Combined
Alex Johnson South Yorkshire Metropolitan
Becci Bryant Staffordshire PFCC
Sabrina Cohen-Hatton West Sussex County


There are two women deputy chief fire officers: recently promoted Shantha Dickinson in Hampshire and Isle of Wight and Sally Chapman in South Wales.

Encouragingly, there are ten women assistant chief fire officers, some of whom do not have traditional operational responsibilities. Vicky Wallens-Hancock joined Cornwall Fire and Rescue Service in 2005 as an analyst and in 2017 was promoted to Assistant Chief Officer, Head of Service Support. ACOs Shan Morris and Helen MacArthur both have corporate service responsibilities in North Wales and when Dawn Docx re-joins later this year will have the most women principal officers in the country. And in Cleveland, ACO Karen Winter is responsible for strategic planning and resources.


Women Assistant Chief Officers

Candida Brudenell joined Nottinghamshire as a unform-wearing ACO in June 2020 after spending 30 years in local government. She had a lot of experience in resilience and working with the Local Resilience Forum as a member of the Strategic Co-ordinating Group.

Interviewed for this article, she said that the skills required in that environment equipped her well for operating at ACO level. She has enhanced her skills by taking the Multi-Agency Gold Incident Command (MAGIC) course. She said that anyone considering applying to join the Fire and Rescue Service needs to be able to translate Fire Service requirements into their own language. She is still learning fire lexicon now that she is in the job.

Having spent more than a year in post, Candida recognises that it is unusual for someone who has not come through the operational ranks to be an ACO. She decided from the start that she would confront this head on and address the matter where she could and particularly as part of her station visits last summer. Describing herself has having a thick skin, she has weathered the social media criticism that accompanied her appointment.


Women Chief Fire Officers

Like Candida, Jo Turton also came from a long career in local government. Chief Fire Officer of Essex since April 2018, Jo is supported operationally by her Deputy Chief Fire Officer, Rick Hylton. Same goes for Kent, where Ann Millington told FIRE in 2018: “I’m the Chief Executive, I’m not pretending to be the Chief Fire Officer because I will never be making a decision to ‘put that fire out’. That’s never going to happen. I am surrounded by fire experts.”

In early 2017 Dany Cotton took over as London Fire Commissioner. She spoke to FIRE six months before the Grenfell Tower fire. Dany was unambiguous about being a woman leader. “The whole of my tenure will be framed around me being a woman Commissioner.”

Dany is no longer in office and today Jane Philpott is the only woman principal officer in London Fire Brigade. Back in 2012, Jane was Borough Commander (Group Manager) for the London Borough of Merton. Nine years on she is an established ACO in charge of all fire stations – over 100 of them – across London.

Previously a Deputy Assistant Commissioner in London, Dr Sabrina Cohen-Hatton has had a meteoric rise to the top. She is now Chief Fire Officer in West Sussex and can often be seen promoting the Fire and Rescue Service through her regular media appearances.

Alex Johnson, Chief Fire Officer of South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue, found herself on national television earlier this year as part of Channel 4’s Steph’s Packed Lunch. Part of a segment about getting people back to work post pandemic, Alex did a great job advertising the Fire and Rescue Service as a potential employer. 

In her interview with FIRE last year, she said: “I think the service as a whole has changed, and not just for women. Generally, I think people are starting to see that the Fire Service isn’t just about using brute force, it’s about those inter-personal skills; it’s OK to have vulnerabilities. I’ve seen a change in the behaviours in the service. It’s more of an inclusive place where people are starting to recognise that diversity is strength rather than something you have to do.”


“It’s more of an inclusive place where people are starting to recognise that diversity is strength rather than something you have to do”

CFO Alex Johnson, South Yorkshire FR


Career Progression in the Fire Service

This chimes with what Lynsey McVay had to say. Lynsey is an ACO in Tyne and Wear, and joined Cumbria Fire and Rescue Service as a firefighter in 2000. Since then she has progressed up the ranks, moving between different services along the way. Like Jo Bowcock (pictured on pg 30 of the June issue of FIRE), Lynsey also spent time working at a national level as part of the National Resilience programme.

Responding to questions for this article, she reflected on how she has altered her thinking about being a woman in the Fire and Rescue Service over the last 20 years. “I think that for a time, at the beginning of my career, I did compromise who I was, as you want to fit in; and you want to be accepted. But not being your true self doesn’t work in the long-term and I quickly realised that for me to be happy at work I had to be myself and accept what came with that.”

Asked whether it matters if there are women in principal officer posts, Lynsey replied: “I would like to say that it doesn’t and at some point, in the future, it won’t. Unfortunately, I feel it does.”

Lynsey makes the obvious point that the reason there are not many women at this level is because there are not many women in the Fire and Rescue Service to begin with. She is right to highlight that the women at the highest levels in services can inspire those at different stages in their careers to aspire to join them. 

Considering the value of diversity in terms of gender and career trajectory in fire and rescue services, Lynsey added: “Women and individuals from other diverse backgrounds are needed to support the change required within the sector. We all bring something different to the table and until we have an equal and diverse range of people to sit together at that table, my appointment along with all the other female and minority group appointments will remain significant.”


“Women and individuals from other diverse backgrounds are needed to support the change required within the sector”

ACO Lynsey McVay, Tyne and Wear FRS


Unfortunately, in Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service there are no women at area manager or group manager level, so it will be a long time before Lynsey is joined by any of her female colleagues.

Sarah Nattrass is ACO and in Durham and Darlington and Sarah Warnes is ACO in West Midlands. They share a very similar career history, joining as firefighters in 1994 and working their way up their respective services to reach principal officer level.

Working on national projects through the National Fire Chiefs Council is another way of gaining valuable experience that can set one applicant apart from others when going for promotion. Jo Bowcock is a good example of this. Jo spent over two years with the National Operational Guidance Programme when she was Group Manger with Nottinghamshire Fire and Rescue Service. She left the programme and moved on promotion to Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Service where she is now ACO.

Asked what advice she would give other women considering promotion to principal officer roles, she said: “Spending time working with the NFCC was fundamental for my development and my promotion. The breadth and depth of knowledge I gained throughout my time working on National Operational Guidance was unique. I look back fondly on my time with the team, and I feel privileged to have been part of shaping the future direction of the NFCC.”

Jo added: “What excites me about working for Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Service is the commitment to increasing our diversity. From our Chief Fire Officer down, we recognise the benefits: a better understanding of the issues our communities face, enhancing local relationships, and delivering the right service for each community’s needs.”

Emphasising the confidence she gained while being away from her service on secondment, Jo said it was really enlightening to work with the NFCC Chair and committee leads. It helped her understand the strategic perspective of the chief fire officer and importance of networks to provide support and advice regardless of which governance model was in place.

And on that networking point, Lynsey McVay also had some useful advice. “Make sure that you have a good support network around you and that you identify senior women and men, both inside and outside the sector, who you can trust to go to for advice and support. Build your network.”


“Spending time working with the NFCC was fundamental for my development and my promotion”

ACO Jo Bowcock, Oxfordshire FRS 


Reinforced Glass

This review of women in principal officer ranks shows the extent to which the glass ceiling remains intact in fire and rescue services. To really understand the way that women progress through the ranks needs a lot more work and data crunching, particularly to understand why women leave, why women do not go for promotion and how having children and the menopause have an impact on progression.

The NFCC is doing work in its People programme and hopefully that will shed some new light; it is a topic that could do with some more academic attention as well. There is a valuable resource in the Fire Service Research and Training Trust (, perhaps this article will encourage an application for funding. Until there is better evidence about why women are not battering the glass ceiling in fire and rescue services, it is going to stay intact for a very long time.

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