I’m a little early in publishing this blog inspired by International Women’s Day (IWD) which is on Wednesday 8th March this year. I’m on leave for the week and whilst pleased to be taking some leave, I know that we have a lot of great events happening in West Yorkshire FRS to mark IWD, and there are a number of guest speakers who will be sharing their experiences and thoughts. I’ll miss these but I hope that they go well, and are well supported by our staff – they are there for you to take part in.
One of the themes of IWD this year is #BeBoldForChange, and we’ve also talked about sharing stories of the women in our lives that have inspired us – using #SheInspiresMe. This got me thinking about a recent photograph that has cropped up on a Facebook page dedicated to Birmingham Fire & Ambulance Service. It’s a black and white photo of my Mum and Dad, and its one that isn’t in any family collection. Having shown it to my Mum (my Dad passed away a number of years ago, and was a Fireman in the BFAS) it started a conversation about “the way it used to be” in the Fire Brigade – as it was referred to back then. It’s the type of conversation that many of you will have had if you had friends and family in the service of yesteryear, and the type we’ve had at home many times before – and it’s a reminder of how far we have come in terms of changing our service. In those days many families lived on the stations on which they served, socialised together on those stations (whether on or off duty) and worked a much longer working week than today – they were, of course, also much busier operationally. This led to what I often hear referred to as the type of culture where the watch that you served on almost became an extended family, and many life experiences were shared. Clearly people nowadays live different and more independent lives and a watch is different to what it used to be. We now work differently as teams from those days where people often spent more time AT work than not. Whilst we have changed as a service, there is more that we can do to react to the new, and changing, norms of the society that we live as part of. I’m more than sure that our service is a more inclusive place than it was then – an era when women simply didn’t join the response part of the fire service, they weren’t part of the watch life I describe above, and they were limited to what you could argue as (then) stereotypical roles in the Control Room and the like. In 2017 we have women serving at all ranks and all roles up to, and including, Chief Fire Officer and this improved diversity does make us a better, more inclusive service . I’m absolutely not going to criticise, or sit in judgement, about the way it used to be. It was a different era, and it was a long time ago, and many other parts of society were very different too. I know from speaking to my Mum and Dad that they were good times, and they have always spoken fondly of them.
My story for International Women’s Day is about my Mum. She separated from my Dad when I was still relatively young, and we left our home at Birmingham Central Fire Station . She raised my brother and myself pretty much on her own, with a lot of help from my widowed Grandmother. They were tough times, as I’m sure many others experienced too, but their influence on me, and who I am, was so important in those formative years. My Mum and Grandmother were the two people who supported and guided me, contact with my Dad was pretty limited. I’m the person that I am today because of those two women – and I have learnt a lot from them. Important values about looking out for each other, about fairness, and nothing being presented to you on a plate. My Mum was an Auxiliary Nurse and I’ve always grown up in the environment of caring for other people and working hard – we’ve always recognised that good people generally have good things happen to them, and that you get out of life what you put into it. Values that are just as important to me now as they were to my Mum when she struggled to raise 2 boys, single handedly, in the 1970s.
My Mum has always been proud of my career in the Fire Service, one that my Dad could have followed were it not for circumstances at the time. He was only in the service for a relatively short period of time, but it was enough to plant a seed in my mind when it came to choosing a career. We talk a lot about the things I do at work, and of course things are very different nowadays -sometimes in a way that are very alien to her. The very fact that people go to work, and have so many different tasks to do beyond training and response is a perfect example – other than the odd school visit back then, being in the fire service was so much about fires – not even the wider rescue role had really been established. When you think of RTCs, USAR, CBRN, MTFA etc it is a much more extensive role with a different skill set needed – especially in the arena of prevention. You could say that it’s the same job but different though – two experiences almost 40 years apart.
I’m sure that many will have a similar tale to tell, and I hope that increasingly the women that inspire us come from within our own workplace. We are a changing service, and we still have work to do to address the gender imbalance that currently exists. As the recruitment process for new wholetime firefighters, and the ongoing process of recruiting firefighters to the retained duty system continues, I hope that many more women join our service and help shape the future.
There have been some excellent articles about being a woman in the UK FRS in the Guardian this weekend. One from LORRAINE MOORE, and the other from DANY COTTON . I hope that both are read widely, and inspire more women to join us. Dany rightly raises the issue of the term ‘Firefighter’ vs ‘Fireman’, and the lazy use of the terms in the media – it is the small things like this that make a difference, and I’ll always correct it when I see it. The eagle eyed amongst you will note that I used the term ‘Fireman’ in this blog. It’s what people said back then,it’s not what we use today. I do so unapologetically, it’s what my Dad was, it’s what he called himself, and it’s what we all remember him as. More so – it’s what is written in biro on the wooden surface of his shoe polish brush that I use to this day, and it reminds me about a happy time in my parents life.