Derbyshire female firefighters want to inspire more women to join
Female firefighters are still a rarity, according to active members in Derbyshire Fire and Rescue. Some have been called “firemen” and think the label could be part of the reason why more women do not apply to be firefighters. Others think women may worry about the “strength criteria” needed to work as a firefighter, but say it’s an obstacle anyone can overcome.
Whatever the reason, “5% of the British fire service are female,” according Crew Manager and trainer Rebecca Sims. That puts Derbyshire above the national average – 8.7% of their firefighters are female. “It’s normal to be the only female on the watch but there’s certainly support mechanisms if you are on your own,” says Rebecca. “I think it’s always been a male-dominated career and they’re aren’t many women that do it.
I think it’s not obvious. “People still call me a fireman, quite clearly I’m not and I think that’s such an easy thing we can change.” Based in Repton, Rebecca says she likes to challenge the idea that firefighting is for men.
“I’m also a retained firefighter in my local village, so my evenings and weekends are driving the trucks and putting the fires out. “I like people seeing me drive the trucks because I know I’m challenging peoples’ opinions because not only am I a female firefighter I drive the truck and I manage the shift.” Joanna Raisin, Watch Manager of White Watch in Long Eaton, says she deals with the same preconceived notions.
“People are often surprised when they see me, they don’t know what to call me and people are pointing saying ‘oh, there’s a lady look.’ “I know it’s still surprising and the numbers of female firefighters are really low.”
11 of Derbyshire’s 62 female firefighters. Top (left to right): Beverley Bridgewater, Deborah Dixon, Jessica Forester, Emma Furniss. Middle (left to right): Jolene O’Sullivan, Rebecca Sims, Julia Smith.
Bottom (left to right): Joanna Raisin, Bethan Kent, Laura O’Brien, Amy Morgan. (Image: Derbyshire Fire and Rescue)
Both Joanna and Rebecca have worked as firefighters when they are the only female members of staff on shift. “When I was the only female on the station my changing facilities were a locker in a cleaning cupboard,” says Joanna. “I felt quite isolated. When I started I was the only female on the station and there’s been times where it’s been unintentional that I’ve felt isolated but sometimes there’s been deliberate times. “Now I’m in a station where there’s eight females so the difference to having people to chat to in the locker room is big and it’s really important.”
Rebecca says that while she was the only female firefighter during her training course, she did not feel isolated like Joanna. “On my recruits course I was the only female but I didn’t feel isolated and there’s various support mechanisms because we’re so rare.” Emma Furniss, who began training as a on-call firefighter in Clowne in May 2020, was also the only female trainee.
“The first day I went in for training, when I walked in there was just me and then 30 men. So I was a bit, oh no, am I capable of doing this? “But then as soon as I started doing the tests I was quite happy with everything I did.
I didn’t feel at that point that I was at any disadvantage. Everybody is set to the same standards.” Joanna agrees that some women may not apply to be firefighters due to fears of not being “super strong.”
“I think people are put off because they think you have to super strong and super fit and you need a really good level of strength and fitness but that is something that can be worked on.” Firefighters all have to meet the same strength requirements. “That takes more work on women’s behalf,” says Rebecca “just because we’re not built that way because men are more muscular in nature but for those interested in health and fitness it wouldn’t be a problem at all.” Joanna, who originally worked in fire control and was inspired to join the fire service after talking to other firefighters, said that strength is something that can be worked on.
“I remember being told that strength is something that you can easily build on and I did have a lot of support with fitness and strength training. “I also remember being told you don’t have to be an honorary bloke to fit in in the Fire Service and that’s always something that’s stayed with me, that you can be yourself and you don’t have to change and you’ll still be accepted.”
Rebecca Sims has worked as a firefighter for seven-and-a-half years (Image: Derbyshire Fire and Rescue)
All three firefighters say they would recommend the job to women and they would like to see more women in the fire service. Joanna said: “The fire service is a challenging job because it’s so varied and there’s lots to learn and there’s so many different skills involved but it’s worth it, you get to meet so many fantastic people.”
She also said that she feels like a “role model” both to the public and to women looking to join the fire service. “I think a lot of people look up to firefighters because we’re there to help people and save people. I guess you have a duty when you’re in that position to be a good role model.”
Rebecca added: “We do a lot of community work preventing fires, so make sure people have smoke alarms and showing them how to stop being subject to fires at home. I’ve learned a lot. “I like helping people at any end of it, preventing an accident or helping people if something terrible has happened.
It comes in different forms.” After waiting for a three years, Emma says that she now wants to be a fire fighter full time. “Maybe I was one of the people who didn’t think I was capable of it. “I think maybe there is that preconceived idea that women can’t do the same things, but without doing it I don’t think you’d really be able to know that.
I’d encourage anyone to do it.”
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