Come on baby, put out my fire

Traditionally a male stronghold, the fire service is going all out to recruit women. Tim Walker looks at a job that is changing fast
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The Independent Online

Hang on a minute. Do you smell burning? No? OK, then read on. After all, the last thing you want is a fire starting, right? Although, of course, if the worst does happen, there are about 36,000 dedicated firefighters out there ready to come to your rescue.

Notice the use of the non-gender-specific Americanism "firefighter" in place of the more traditional "fireman". This is partly because, for some time now, "firewoman" has ceased to be a contradiction in terms.

The fire service is spending a good deal of time and energy on the recruitment of women into its ranks, alongside a drive to attract applicants from the black and minority ethnic communities. The London Fire Brigade now has 163 women and 502 minority ethnic firefighters among its full-time operational personnel. West Yorkshire, with its large British Asian population, has seen a 60 per cent rise in the numbers of women firefighters and firefighters from ethnic minority backgrounds since 2003.

"We're working to make the service welcoming to under-represented groups, and to make it a safe and unthreatening place to work," says Kevin Pearson, chief fire officer and chief executive of the Avon Fire Service. "It's not about quotas or targets. We're trying to provide the best possible service to the community, so we need to reflect that community in the service."

Pearson's words signal the fundamental change that has taken place within the fire services in recent years. "There has been a shift in emphasis from intervention to prevention of fires," says Hilary Brown, human resources manager for West Yorkshire Fire Service. "Of course, we still put out fires and rescue people, but there is a focus now on fire safety and awareness."

This means that the once-aloof firefighter now has an active role in the community, working to build awareness of the causes of fires among the general public, so reducing the risk of emergencies. It requires a new set of abilities from the average firefighter.

"Historically," says Pearson, "the recruitment of firefighters focused purely on physical strength, fitness and stamina. Now we balance that with a range of skills, many based on communication: the ability to teach, languages, experience of working with the elderly, and so on."

Often women, or those from minority backgrounds, are better placed to perform the new tasks facing a firefighter than their colleagues. "There are people who can get into places where perhaps a white male couldn't," Brown argues.

Carrie Grant, 33, has been a firefighter in London for four years, and loved every minute of it. "I'd never even dreamt of it as a career; I didn't even know there were women in the job. But I went to an open day at a fire station to see what the training would be like and I knew from that moment that I wanted to do it.

"I love that, when I come into work, I have no idea what the day's going to bring. I might be dealing with fires, floods, a road accident or a cat trapped in a tree." And she has seen at first hand the advantages of having female firefighters in the service. "We often do home visits as part of our work in the community," Grant says, "to check that people aren't overloading their electrical sockets, or to install smoke alarms. When they see a female, people relax, because they feel less intimidated."

Of course, as in any profession with such a macho history, there are women firefighters who have a more difficult time. "I had a great crew who all looked out for me when I was a trainee," Grant says, "so I think it's a shame when women come into the job and have a hard time. Some of the guys don't want women in the job, because they're in the job to impress women.

"And then there are some women who find it's just not the job for them - they expect other people to go out of their way to help them fit in. You have to have the right attitude. You have to want to do it, and people have to see that you love doing it in order to accept you."

The one dent in the otherwise blemish-free public image of the fire service came with the strike over firefighters' pay in 2003. The upside of this, for any prospective firefighter, is that it resulted in a pay rise.

As Hilary Brown says, the fire service provides great opportunities for ambitious young people. "An 18-year-old can be earning an £18,000 or £19,000 salary, moving up quickly to more than £20,000," she says. "And there's a clear career path up through the ranks."

Currently, the only way to reach a high-level role in operational firefighting is to begin as a trainee and work up through the ranks, though the Government plans to implement a multi-tier entry system over the next couple of years.

Not all trainees are 18-year-olds. "The service is made up of people from any walk of life, as long as you're fit and able," says Sean Perry, a probationary firefighter from Bristol. "The youngest member of my watch is 21, and the oldest is fiftysomething, so we have a range of ages. On my training course, one guy was in his forties, and had been a retained firefighter for some time."

That's another way into the service - as a retained, or part-time, firefighter, alongside a more regular day job. In areas such as Avon and West Yorkshire, with their mixture of urban and rural surroundings, a similar mixture of full-time and retained operational personnel is sufficient for the fire service's task. Many retained firefighters later progress to become full-time personnel.

And, if working within the fire service is an attractive prospect but perhaps you feel dissuaded by anything from a physical disability to suffering from mild vertigo, there are always openings in roles that don't involve operational training. The London service, for instance, employs about 100 people in its "mobilising team" - the control room staff who take 999 calls and coordinate the brigade's response to emergencies - and a further 800 or so professional support staff, working in finance, human resources and so on.

John Naylor is in charge of the West Yorkshire fire control room, based in Birkenshaw, near Bradford. "We take 999 calls, monitor all the units, coordinate emergency response and provide any other support as required," he says. "We're uniformed, but we're not operational firefighters."

Naylor, now a fire control officer, joined the service in 1983 as a telephone operator. "Back then, when we answered the telephone, we just had paper records of all the addresses in the whole county, and we'd have to search through them to find out where the nearest fire station was to respond to the emergency," he recalls. "Now we use a second-generation computer system."

Naylor's motives for staying in the job echo those of most operational firefighters. "It's all about public service, doing your bit to assist people who are in dire straits," he says. "That's the incentive to do the job as best and efficiently as we can."

The lowdown

How much do firefighters get paid, then?

A trainee firefighter gets around £19,400 per year, moving up to nearly £26,000 when they complete their training and are declared 'competent'. Further up the ranks, a station manager commands around £35,000.

How long does the training take?

The basic training is only 12 weeks long, but then you remain a probationary firefighter for three years, after which (if you pass all the tests) you are fully-qualified.

Firefighters have to work around the clock, don't they?

Most fire stations operate four watches - red, white, green or blue - each of which work two nine-hour day shifts, followed by two 15-hour night shifts, followed by four full days off.

How do I find out more?

You could take a look at the website for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister ( www.odpm.gov.uk).

'We're here to help people and that's where it gets rewarding'

Sean Perry, 33, is a probationary firefighter with White Watch at Temple Fire Station in Bristol

"I was self-employed for a few years. A friend of mine had joined a brigade and kept talking about how great it was, and about all the people he had helped.

"I'm quite an active person, and it just sounded like the job for me, so I went down to the nearest station to check it out. It's much better than having your own business, I'll say that. I applied in January 2003 and got the job that October.

"I went to training school for four months and joined the station in February 2004.

"I'll be a probationary firefighter until mid-October, when I take an exam to become classed as a firefighter. In a year's time I'll take another part-practical, part-written exam to prove I'm a competent firefighter so that I can go up the pay scale.

"One of the best things about the job is that you're doing completely different things every day.

"One day I might be mopping up a house that's been flooded by a burst water main, the next I'll be rescuing a pigeon that's trapped on a roof. Yesterday, for example, we responded to a call from a 12th-floor flat, which we thought involved a person trapped in a fire.

"It turned out to be a lady with mental health problems who had been locked in her flat and called the fire brigade.

"Then later on I was putting out a car fire in a Bristol back alley. The other day there was a flash flood in the Lord Mayor of Bristol's residence, so we were mopping up his house.

"We're constantly learning new skills - at Temple we have specialist equipment for, say, road traffic accidents.

"We are the Fire And Rescue service, after all. We deal with all sorts: fires, floods, rescue situations.

"Ultimately we're here to help people and that's where the real reward comes, when someone has felt they need to call the fire brigade and you turn up to help them out. I love going to work. I look forward to it."

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