You'd think the Firearms Unit would be macho. But that's just not the case, says Rachel Shields

Forget slipping into a pair of high heels in the morning: donning a bullet-proof vest is much more fun. And when your average 24 hours reads like the script of a Samuel L Jackson film, it might well come in handy. From pursuing wanted criminals, to high-speed car chases and tense hostage negotiations, it seems there is rarely a dull day in the Firearms Unit of the Metropolitan Police.

With less than 550 members, this elite squad is charged with providing armed cover for the public and the rest of the Metropolitan Police Service's 32,000 officers, the vast majority of whom are unarmed. The job is challenging and the selection process rigorous, but for women seeking an alternative to the nine to five, there has never been a better time to join.

Keen to dispel the myth that dealing with armed interventions is a job for the boys, the Metropolitan Police has launched a campaign to recruit more women. Established in 2006, the women's development programme involves sending potential applicants on a residential course to explain the day-to-day realities of the job, during which time they will be mentored by female officers serving in the Firearms Unit.

This strategy is already proving a resounding success, with applications from women increasing four-fold in the last year. As with any specialist division, the Firearms Unit will not consider candidates from outside of the police force, instead choosing officers who have at least three years' experience.

Issues surrounding armed police are frequently raised in the media, but the topic is rarely approached from the point of view of the officers – and it is almost never touted as a potential career. Much of the work of the squad seems to be shrouded in secrecy, although this is largely for security reasons. Officers cannot release their image in case they are recognised while on a mission, and most are unwilling to reveal their names for fear of compromising their safety.

One man who is keen to speak out about life in the Firearms Unit is the squad's leader, Chief Superintendent Bill Tillbury. He outlines a typical day in the life of an armed vehicle response driver (ARV), the level at which all new firearms officers enter the squad.

"The ARV's job is to answer calls from the public that require armed response, and to patrol dangerous areas," he says. "When an officer begins an eight-hour shift, they will be given a full briefing on everything that has gone on during the last 24 hours, which can involve being shown mug-shots of newly wanted criminals. The ARVs have a lot of success in picking them up. They will then either wait for emergency calls, or hop in the ARV cars – which you can spot by the yellow disk in the front and rear windows – and head over to the area they will be patrolling."

To enter the ARV division, candidates undergo a gruelling set of tests, during which everything from their fitness to their temperament will be under scrutiny. Role-playing with qualified firearms instructors is an important part of this process, with testers on the lookout for the good judgement and caution that is vital in someone thrust into dangerous situations.

Tillbury believes that it is the rigorous application process that might be deterring women from applying to the squad. "I don't think women are put off by the danger," he says. "Female officers are just as willing to enter into risky situations as their male colleagues. Part of the problem is the perception of how hard it is to get in. Women worry that they won't be able to carry the weapons, or pass the fitness test, and we want to reassure them that this isn't the case."

The public perception of armed policing needs to be reappraised, says Tilbury. "Historically it has been [seen as a role for men], but we want the best people, and to get that, we need applications from both sexes," he says. "There is also a school of thought that believes that people in dangerous situations do respond differently to women, that they have a particular way of diffusing things."

The firearms unit is also keen to stress that it is as family-friendly as any other employer, offering the same opportunities for part-time working and flexible hours as the rest of the Metropolitan Police.