What next for Women in the Fire Service?
‘Enabling and inspiring confident and successful women to build a more progressive fire and rescue service’
It is all change at Women in the Fire Service (WFS) UK. As London Fire Commissioner Dany Cotton prepares for her retirement in spring 2020, she has already handed over leadership of WFS to Jules King. It is a huge source of pride to Jules to take on this role but after spending the last six years as Vice Chair, she is ready to build on the legacy left by Dany and take WFS forward for the future.
Speaking to FIRE, Jules was full of enthusiasm, buoyed up by the latest training and development event that saw over 200 women gather at the Fire Service College for this increasingly popular fixture on the fire calendar. She provides a quote from one 2019 attendee that for her sums up why they continue doing it. “It was good to see those who we place on pedestals and look up to and admire are just human like me. It helped me to have some self-belief that they would have been feeling like me once.”
Women in the Fire Service UK was established in 1993 at a time when women firefighters were few and far between. Indeed, Jules says that when she joined there was only one woman firefighter in her service. By 2002, the first year for which Home Office provides national statistics on the gender of firefighters (both wholetime and on-call) the number was 753, just 1.7 per cent of the operational workforce. Sixteen years later the figure is closer to 2,000 and the percentage has crept up to just 5.7 per cent.
Women in the Fire Service embrace women serving in all areas of fire and rescue services; to consider it as a purely operationally focused organisation is to ignore the larger numbers of women working in fire control and in support functions – as the Home Office chart below demonstrates (and puts into sharp relief the massive gender difference in roles).
Gender of staff employed by FRSs, by role in England in 2018
Jules is an operational Group Manager in East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service. She has just completed 25 years’ service and has been part of WFS for over 18 years, starting as a local representative for East Sussex, then a regional rep and was Vice Chair for the last six years. She is keen to grow WFS and would like to see a representative from every fire and rescue service. Membership currently stands at 439 individual members.
Part of nurturing the growth of WFS means working out what WFS is for and what members can expect from it. Last year a group of WFS volunteers, drawn from all levels of the membership, and the leadership team gathered for a day to look at the values of WFS to try to understand what it meant to different people. Jules says this was a cathartic day.
As a result, WFS now has a new purpose statement: ‘Enabling and inspiring confident and successful women to build a more progressive fire and rescue service’. Alongside this sits a new set of values: ‘Working together, future focused, sharing strengths’.
“I do recognise, whether I want to or not, that I am a role model. So if that’s the case, then I want to be an active one”
Community of Women
As more women join the Fire and Rescue Service they can look to WFS as a place to find a community of women where they can share experiences, find mentors and seek advice. There is an active closed Facebook group where this engagement takes place. With nearly 2,000 women firefighters in post, there are increasing opportunities for operational women in the Fire Service to find mentors to grow and develop their careers.
After a long period where there has been no firefighter recruitment, recent campaigns can now shatter the old trope of what it takes to be a firefighter. Jules uses the phrase, “If she can see it, she can be it”, noting that nearly every campaign used a woman firefighter to show that firefighting is an option for women.
“What has changed,” says Jules “is that all those women will have experienced a female role model in the journey to becoming a firefighter.” Not all women firefighters want to be in the spotlight and Jules accepts that, but says that she has a role to play. “I do recognise, whether I want to or not, that I am a role model. So if that’s the case, then I want to be an active one.”
With a new cohort of women firefighters joining fire and rescue services and hopefully continuing to do so in increasing numbers in the future, there is a whole new generation coming through. But what of those who joined before the long recruitment freeze? Jules talks in particular about the need for better support for women who joined in the late 1980s and early 1990s who have reached the menopause. Although she does point out she is still having conversations about making sure that PPE is designed to fit women properly, so there are many fundamental issues for women that remain to be addressed.
Asked whether she sees WFS as a lobbying organisation influencing change at a national level, Jules talks about the many opportunities they have to contribute to the development of policy through National Fire Chiefs Council forums and responding to various consultations. It is a very reactive approach at the moment and to move to something more proactive and akin to lobbying for change, Jules says she needs resources, pointing out: “We’ve all got busy day jobs as well”. One of her aims is to get more subject matter experts on to the executive committee and expand capacity to be more proactive.
There is now an increasing evidence base provided by the HMICFRS reports showing where fire and rescue services are still not serving women well. It is a good place for WFS to focus its thinking about influencing change. The time is right.
Returning to the origins of WFS (then known as Networking Women in the Fire Service), Jules responds with great warmth and affection for departing Chair, Dany Cotton.
“I remember Dany from my first WFS event in 1996. Dany has been the Chair or Vice Chair for 19 years. She’s always been a figurehead, someone to aspire to. Over that time she has become an incredibly good friend of mine. I feel so grateful to have Dany as a friend. Through all the different challenges she’s had, there’s just something so incredible about her. She has never been someone who’s like a chief.
“I hadn’t realised how resilient and empathetic she has been to cope with what she has been through. I am proud to know her as a friend and proud to take over from her as Chair of the WFS.”
Reflecting on the interview with FIRE, Jules says at its conclusion that she needs to start raising her own profile, so that she can lead WFS and make a difference. She talks about being nervous when speaking to large audiences, but knows that this will pass over time and with more experience she will do it with ease and in her own way. “I’ve got to get myself out there. I want to be able to continue the amazing work that Dany has done.”
She has big shoes to fill, but Jules is ready and well equipped to take WFS forward and build it to be even better.
For more information visit: www.wfs.org.uk
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