Features Editor Lorna King talks to West Midlands Fire Service’s Sam Burton about her roles as the Strategic Enabler for Operations (North) and Preparedness, Silver Commander for Fire for the Commonwealth Games and Project Executive for the UKRO Festival of Rescue 2022 and is inspired by an often fraught but ultimately uplifting journey.
It was Michelle Obama who said: “There is no limit to what we, as women, can accomplish, whether that’s in politics or other fields.” Exactly one year ago, in FIRE’s June 2021 issue, FIRE explored some impressive examples in our article about breaking the Fire and Rescue Service glass ceiling and getting women to the top of their game. Although that glass ceiling does still seem to be stubbornly intact, it will be the continuous reporting of women who are treading a ground-breaking path through their Fire Service career that will create the cracks and inspire a younger generation to be the pioneers who eventually cause it to shatter altogether.
Gender aside, working through the ranks of the Fire and Rescue Service is no walk in the park. It takes grit, determination, passion, compassion, training and overall a great deal of very hard work. Samantha (Sam) Burton is an individual who has exhibited all of these qualities throughout her 22-year journey from firefighter to currently the highest-ranking female officer within West Midlands Fire and Rescue Service (WMFRS). Sam is the Area Commander responsible for Operations (North) and Preparedness and is also a leading figure for WMFRS in the organisation of the 2022 Commonwealth Games and the UKRO Festival of Rescue 2022. Not usually one to shout about her exploits, recent developments in her life and career have enlightened Sam to the fact that her story will encourage and inspire future generations of firefighters and those already in service to recognise their potential.
“I struggled in the way I was working, so now I know, it’s very liberating. The support available is amazing”
Although she never aspired to be a firefighter as a child, Sam lived a childhood that was largely shaped by her dad’s role working for his company fire brigade within a factory. He was passionate about it and, begrudgingly, Sam accompanied him to many a Fire Service competition where he acted as a referee. As she progressed through her school years, Sam did not feel particularly academic and struggled with much of her work, preferring the more creative and active subjects. But as was the ‘norm’, she persevered and made it through university, graduating with a 2:2 in Leisure Management.
Sam felt decidedly unfulfilled following university until one day, a random conversation provoked her to sign up to the Fire Service. Her boyfriend’s brother at the time announced that he was signing up to be a firefighter and Sam flippantly replied that she might like to give that a go too. His response was to tell Sam: “You won’t be strong enough!” It was this misconceived remark that acted like a red flag to Sam and if she had not reacted to it and followed her instincts to prove she absolutely did have what it takes, she would not be where she is today. She says: “I had no idea what a firefighter did, but I knew I liked helping people and I wanted to be part of a team.”
When Sam started to understand the role and responsibilities of a firefighter, she realised that this is what she wanted to do more than anything in the world. At the time of joining, she was one of 13 women firefighters out of 2,300 men in WMFRS. “I had a very positive experience when I first joined, and I made life-long friends. I loved the life of a firefighter, and I loved the challenges and experiences each day brought. It never felt like I was actually going to work.”
When Sam first joined the Fire Service, she felt the need to fit in with the people on her watch, and she adapted her behaviour accordingly, reacting to her natural ability to read people and their behaviours. “That’s not always right,” she says with hindsight, but the realisation inspired her next move. “I loved my job as a firefighter, but I actually wanted to be responsible for what I did in a day and direct that. I went for promotion quite early, after just three and a half years.”
Ward End Fire Station is one of Birmingham’s busiest stations residing in a hugely diverse area of the city. Sam’s new role as a crew manager at this station did not come without its challenges. “I found that people at incidents wouldn’t speak or listen to me, they always deferred to my crew members. It was a challenging time and I had to break down cultural barriers to enable me to do my job.” Sam had no choice but to learn the strength and resilience needed to overcome these obstacles in a way that was understanding of the communities she was serving. She had a job to do and was accountable for the outcome. It proved to be a reality check and a culture shock for Sam, but she thrived on the challenge, playing to her developing strengths: she is practical, and she can read people quickly in difficult situations and act accordingly and effectively.
Another of Sam’s strengths would become apparent 18 months later when she moved on to become an instructor on the firefighter development programme. Already experienced as a fitness instructor and coach, Sam excelled at teaching new recruits and as the first female instructor working for WMFRS, she inspired them with more than her teaching. At the time the number of women being recruited was increasing and for those women, having a female instructor inspired their own aspirations of working through the ranks, as one recruit openly admitted to Sam. To this day that recruit (now a firefighter) and Sam are close friends. She says: “I absolutely love and value my job, and as an instructor I felt it was a real honour to be teaching the firefighters of the future. I hadn’t even fully developed my own skills as an officer, so I was still learning and felt nervous and, at times, uncomfortable; you have to break that down in your own mind.”
The ‘very hard work’ that was referred to earlier on when describing what it takes to progress through the ranks, is what followed for the next ten or more years of Sam’s developing career. During this time she met and married her husband and together they had a son. She came back from maternity leave when he was a year old into the position of first female operational watch manager for WMFRS, which proved to be quite daunting while also juggling nursery runs and sleepless nights. “It was a strange time!” she recollects.
“It’s important that people get satisfaction from the role they do, that they feel like they add value and make a difference”
After ten years as a watch manager, honing her skills, developing her strengths and managing her weaknesses, Sam progressed into fire investigation, again, as the first female within WMFRS to take on the roll. “Although this was a fascinating experience, the role didn’t suit me. I loved the forensic investigation part of it, however, I felt that I didn’t have the right skills to fully develop into the role.”
Steep Learning Curve
Sam’s natural leadership qualities, competence and commitment to her work earned her the recognition she deserved and she was promoted to senior management level. She initially worked within the Operational Response Team, before progressing to the position of Integrated Risk Manager within the Portfolio Team for CFO, Phil Loach. “It was a steep learning curve and extremely rewarding. I developed a solid knowledge base around community risk management planning, which has been fundamental to my development into a strategic role.”
Initially, Sam found she was not being recognised in her new role. It surprised people that she was a firefighter, and even more so that she was an officer. “I never take offense. I see it as an opportunity to break the stereotype. I think, it’s not what you look like or the uniform that you wear, it’s how you act and what you do that counts. Very soon people realise what you are capable of, and it’s less of an occurrence now because there are so many fantastic female firefighters and officers.”
By the time the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Sam was working as the Strategic Enabler for Protection for WMFRS. It was a challenging time for everyone, and Sam’s additional management responsibilities were creating some anxiety in areas she found difficult to manage. By chance, Sam was soon forced to face some personal circumstances that would turn the dynamics of her job upside down while also shedding light on her anxiety.
During lockdown Sam attended a virtual strategic team development session on neurodiversity. As she listened to the descriptions of many of the characteristics attached to neurodiverse conditions, she was overcome with emotion and had to leave the meeting for a few minutes to take a breath. She re-joined the meeting and immersed herself in the subject, and at the end she asked the leader of the session if he would stay online to chat with her. Sam had recognised many of the characteristics of neurodiverse conditions in herself, and it was agreed that she should have the assessment discussed in their session, which is available to all staff at WMFRS.
Following a series of detailed assessments, Sam was diagnosed with Dyslexia and Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) with traits of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). The ADD diagnosis came as a complete shock, but Sam says the assessment process was fascinating. For example, the first set of forms Sam completed were returned to her because she had not scrolled down and completed all the questions. One of the characteristics of ADD is not completing tasks. “I thought, I’ve just given them the evidence for my diagnosis right there!”
Further into the assessment process, Sam was asked to read paragraphs of text out loud. Some of the paragraphs she could read easily and others she found more challenging. This was because she has excellent perception and understanding skills and her brain could make sense of the paragraphs that held meaning. But other paragraphs held no context, and Sam was unable to read them aloud because her brain could not make sense of the word patterns.
“This is what drives me: making the lives of the people of the West Midlands safer, stronger and healthier”
Sam was not surprised with her dyslexia diagnosis. As previously mentioned, she found school to be challenging and she always suspected there was a reason for this. Her teachers were less than supportive of her poor spelling and grammar skills, embarrassing her in front of the other students. Her mum knew she struggled, but did not know why, yet still helped as much as possible by writing difficult words on sticky notes and placing them around the house.
Sam’s diagnosis has allowed her to work more effectively on her strengths and focus on areas of development and WMFRS has provided extra support and coaching to help her with this. But one question puzzled her and she asked her assessors: how has she been able to maintain her position and progress through the ranks of the Fire Service? She was told that women are usually diagnosed a lot later in life because they are naturally able to devise coping mechanisms to deal with difficult situations. That is what Sam has been doing all these years, and why her journey has been so challenging and fraught with anxiety. “I struggled in the way I was working, so now I know, it’s very liberating. The support available is amazing.”
With additional coping mechanisms in place, Sam can now leave any doubts and anxiety behind and focus all her positive energy and expertise on her many responsibilities. As well as her role as Strategic Enabler for Operations (North) and Preparedness, Sam has been given an organisational role in two momentous events taking place later in 2022. She is the Silver Commander for Fire for the Commonwealth Games, working with blue light partners and the organising committee to ensure a safe and secure games, and she is the Project Executive for the UKRO Festival of Rescue 2022.
“I hope I inspire anyone who wants to join the Fire Service by being the best I can be in a job that I love”
Sam’s strengths play perfectly to organising and enabling teams of people. In fact, she thrives on enabling individuals and teams to succeed, and she is recognised for this by her peers. “If you asked people who work with me they would probably say I’m very diligent. I know I’m an emotional person; I like to connect with the people I’m working with. It’s important that people get satisfaction from the role they do, that they feel like they add value and make a difference.”
When talking of her responsibilities, going forward, Sam speaks passionately about WMFRS’s commitment to being a progressive service. “What I love most about the role that I’m in now is that I am part of the change that we are striving for. Being able to influence this as a female fire officer who started in the West Midlands is really important to me. I was a complex needs officer for a number of years, where I supported people in the community that were extremely vulnerable. This is what drives me: making the lives of the people of the West Midlands safer, stronger and healthier.”
Sam remains suitably grounded in her ambitions for the future: “It would be wrong to say I haven’t got aspirations. I am committed to my role, reducing risk and vulnerability for the people of the West Midlands, this and developing the skills needed for a strategic leader of the future are always at the forefront of what I do. Who knows where that will take me?”
Our conversation concluded with some quite profound reflections from Sam. She is not overt in sharing her journey, she describes herself as a woman who has exhibited competence in her work, and this is what she hope will inspire others. “There are a lot more female firefighters now, and more visible senior officers, which is fantastic. I don’t know whether my story is any different to anybody else’s, I’m sure there are other people who have had worse journeys than I’ve had, but I hope I inspire anyone who wants to join the Fire Service by being the best I can be in a job that I love.”
Sam wants future generations of firefighters to understand that being a firefighter can mean many things. “I want young men and women who are thinking of joining the Fire Service, or are at the beginning of their career, to see that there are many opportunities for them. The hardest thing is choosing which ones to take!”