The FIRE magazine Excellence in Fire and Emergency Awards has been around for a few years now. Each December, the great and the good gather at a swanky central London venue and toast the achievements of colleagues and peers. It’s a lovely lunch and an opportunity to reconnect and find new friends.
But there was something missing. It all seemed a bit predictable: it’s the “96 per cent white and 95 per cent male” reference that Theresa May made back in May 2016 and rattled the press at the time. It was there at the awards writ large.
Earlier in 2015 I listened to Radio 4 and the announcement of the Woman’s Hour Power List. Nicola Sturgeon topped the list of top influencers that year. I spoke to Andrew Lynch about this and said we should do the same for fire. We should add a category to the EFE Awards that showed the ten most influential women in fire. Given every other award had just one winner, the idea was edited to become the most influential woman in fire.
We were really pleased to get lots of nominations for the inaugural year. They came from different parts of the fire sector and were by no means exclusively for operational women. The judges were unanimous that the award should go to Dany Cotton from London Fire Brigade. At that time, Dany was very senior in the Brigade but not yet Commissioner. She set the bar very high.
The following year we received more nominations and the award went to Becci Bryant, who had become the first female Chief Fire Officer of Staffordshire Fire and Rescue Service. Like Dany, Becci came up through the ranks and brought decades of operational experience with her.
Today there are just four women leading fire and rescue services in the United Kingdom. In addition to Dany and Becci, Dawn Whittaker has taken over as Chief in East Sussex and Ann Millington remains Chief Executive of Kent Fire and Rescue Service.
That’s it. But this award isn’t about being recognised as a female chief. It’s about influence. It’s amazing that we have these four incredible women leading four out of 50 fire and rescue services but it’s not enough. They aren’t the only women making a difference to the way the service and the wider sector is evolving.
I wanted to know what people thought influence was really about. It turns out that it’s not binary; it’s a subtle art that is hard to define and amorphous. It’s hard to judge an award when the definition of the category is in the eye of the beholder.
So, what to do?
I asked Dany and Becci what they thought about influence. I asked them to tell me what it meant to be an influential woman. This is what they said.
“For me an influential woman is quite often one who can be completely unaware of the impact she has.
They are often unassuming people who just behave in a way that displays integrity, passion and commitment to whatever they do.
I’m not talking about large-scale strategic issues; just in conducting themselves in their everyday lives both in and out of work.
I see a lot of younger women joining the fire service now, both operationally and not, who have a way of talking to people and persuading them to see different viewpoints, and that influences wide scale change in a subtle and lasting way.” - Dany Cotton, Commissioner, London Fire Brigade.
“Influential, an interesting word that means many things to many people but to me this means having the ability to change that way something is done, not in a authoritative manner but in a way that takes those experiencing that change on a positive journey.
So an influential woman to me is someone that has seen the need to do something in the first instance, or perhaps do something differently and then been able to take people along with them ultimately delivering improved outcomes for those impacted by the change.
Being influential is not about doing the biggest things possible it ranges from leading a team in the work place which delivers incredible results, to working on a national stage and having a positive impact on the way the Fire Service operates, to working with a community group and helping them to live their lives more independently and safely. It could also be someone that has done something that has changed people’s perceptions about the Service and the role we play in our communities today.
Some of the most influential women I know do not even know that they are influential, they see the need to do something and they tend to get on a do it.” - Becci Bryant, CFO, Staffordshire Fire and Rescue Service.
And as you can see, they are different. Not completely, but subtly. So, my challenge to you is to think about the women you know involved in the fire sector, not just the fire service. Both Dany and Becci say that influential women don’t always know they are, but you do. You can spot them.
Do that. Think about it. Nominate an influential woman to be the third winner of the Most Influential Woman in Fire Award. It doesn’t take long; just fill in the short citation here by 30 September.
Give us a long, challenging list to review. Make our job really difficult.