This award is about all the women who are involved in delivering the amazing, high quality service that we know and cherish. It’s about recognising the contribution that women make in all areas of protection, prevention and response, local government, central government, in industry and in the professional associations amongst many others.
An examination of senior management teams shows the stark absence of women in senior leadership positions in the fire and rescue service. There is just one female leader of a fire and rescue service now: Ann Millington is the Chief Executive of Kent Fire and Rescue Service and is also on CFOA’s Board.
It was slightly better until just recently: Susan Johnson OBE from Durham and Darlington, Joy Smith from Derbyshire and the Deputy Commissioner of London Fire Brigade, Rita Dexter OBE have all left their posts this year.
There are some women in the highest uniformed ranks: for example, Becci Bryant is Executive Director/Deputy Chief Executive of Staffordshire; Dawn Docx is the Deputy Chief in North Wales and Dany Cotton is an Assistant Commissioner in London. Dr Sabrina Hatton Cohen has recently joined the London Fire Brigade as a Deputy Assistant Commissioner. Sabrina has gone a long way to promote an academic approach in the world of incident command.
But again, it doesn’t seem quite right that the list is so small and the names so well known. Why is that? The main reason is of course that the pool is miniscule to start with: in 2004 women made up just 2.4 per cent of the whole time and retained workforce. Ten years later this number had gone up to just 4.5 per cent. It is no wonder then that the most senior women don’t actually come from the uniformed ranks.
What can be done about this? How can women be encouraged to join the fire and rescue service and once there, stay and get promoted to become one of the leaders to inspire other women to follow in their footsteps?
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One organisation to look at for inspiration is Women in the Fire Service (WFS). Led by Dany Cotton, WFS has worked tirelessly to “make the fire and rescue service a place where men and women can work, and compete together professionally and harmoniously.” WFS encourage the progression of women within the fire and rescue service, providing training opportunities with its annual training and development weekend and a supportive network for members.
For this award, in its inaugural year, the women cited here got to the highest positions in the fire and rescue service. However, this award is about influence, so it’s not just about being a woman at the top, it’s as much about the journey as the position occupied.
There are many, many women in non-uniformed areas of fire and rescue services. Women tend to dominate in fire prevention roles; education teams going into schools employ many women in part time positions, family friendly and often term time only. There are many female fire inspectors carrying out the enforcement role under the Fire Safety Order. There are no official figures on these numbers, just a hunch, which is probably true.
There are many women in fire and rescue service communications teams. For example, Bridget Aherne, Head of Communications at Nottinghamshire Fire and Rescue Service is a standard bearer for the service when she writes for professional bodies like the Chartered Institute for Public Relations. She reminds people that fire exists, that our message is strong and that it is worth hearing.
Influence, that’s what this award is about; being an ambassador, telling the rest of the world that the fire and rescue service is not just about putting out fires.
There have been female Fire Ministers: Penny Mordaunt for the Conservatives, Angela Smith for Labour, but that’s quite a while ago now: any others from further back? The Shadow Fire Minister was Lynne Brown last time I looked but post Corbyn that could have changed. It’s notable that they can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
Female civil servants have had a hand in developing fire policy over the years and it’s a big welcome to new DCLG Director of Fire, Sarah Benioff. It’s a shame her policy brief has been expanded to include fire rather than being solely focused on fire. Claire Cooper is the Deputy Director looking after fire safety policy amongst other areas and she has a long history with fire now; she gets it, she supports fire.
There are just six female leaders of Fire Authorities (or equivalent) across the UK. Cllr Kay Hammond from Surrey County Council and Chair of Surrey Fire Authority also chaired the LGA’s Fire and Rescue Services Management Committee.
Carmel McKinney OBE is the new Chair of the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Board. Her appointment is particularly noteworthy because she isn’t an elected councillor and she has a background firmly in education.
Cllr Judith Hughes is the leader of West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Authority; Cllr Jan Brunton chairs Cleveland Fire Authority and Cllr Rebecca Knox is the Chair of Dorset Fire and Rescue Authority. Cllr Michele Hodgson is in County Durham and Darlington – the only example where until recently there was a female Chief and a female Chair.
Dr Jill Tolfrey is the CEO of the Fire Fighters Charity. The work that Jill oversees makes a difference to the lives of firefighters and their families that is hard to measure. The world of fundraising is hugely crowded and it’s difficult to stand out from the crowd but the Fire Fighters Charity is successful and very well respected.
And this list could go on, delving into the fire industry, the professional bodies and so on. It simply scratches the surface of what amazing work is done by amazing women in the fire and rescue service in a wide range of roles and functions that are all important to keeping our communities safe.
The judges want to see a wide range of nominations for this award. If this article has inspired you to think differently about what an influential woman in the fire sector might look like, then take the time to set it down and submit a nomination. But do it soon, nominations close on 30 September, enter this, or any of our 9 categories, here