Firefighting is about ingenuity, not just strength. Women like me are an asset
I’ve been in the fire service for 27 years and was one of the first female firefighters in Bedfordshire when I joined. The numbers have risen since then but women still only amount to 5% of the firefighters in England – about 1,800. At least 23 of those female firefighters are working in Bedfordshire, across our 14 fire stations. But there’s always room for more.
When I first joined there was some wariness from my male colleagues. They weren’t sure how they should behave around me. I have five brothers so I think they felt at ease quite quickly. It was still a learning curve. For example, there was an open-plan dormitory where all the firefighters would rest and there was talk of me having my own room. I explained that I would feel alienated from the rest of the team because when we attended incidents that didn’t have good outcomes, the dormitory was the place to talk things over with the rest of the team and get things off your chest.
I joined when firefighting was mainly a physical job, but now much of the work is preventative and educational. It requires good communication skills. Firefighting isn’t necessarily about strength, but technique and ingenuity. During training they test you physically to see if you’ll give up. When I did my training in the 1980s, we had to run out lengths of fire hose but because I worked out a way to do it effectively I was on my sixth reel while many of the men were still only on their fifth. And my size comes in handy – I can fit through a window that a broad-shouldered man would get stuck in.
Being a firefighter wasn’t something I had ever considered. I had always been active at school, playing in most of the school sports and athletics teams, and I was also a contortionist. I got married when I was 19 and soon went on to have two children. When I was 25 we moved to Bedfordshire and I started to work behind the bar of a local hotel at night.
One evening I overheard someone dropping my name – “Lorraine could do it”. I found out they were looking for on-call firefighters in the town. I didn’t know there even was a fire station where I lived nor that it was crewed by ordinary people from the local community. They told me they needed people available during the day to respond to emergency calls and that it would be ideal for me. The more I thought about it, the more it appealed.
When I mentioned it to my husband he wondered if I’d pass the tests but I took the attitude that I would give it a go. If I got in then brilliant but if not, at least I had tried. I passed the tests and started on-call in November 1989 when my children were three and four years old. Friends and neighbours helped care for my children if I got called out when my husband wasn’t at home and after two years of responding to emergencies I realised that I wanted to make firefighting a career. I became a full-time firefighter in 1992 and the shift work fitted in well with caring for my children, especially during the summer holidays.
One of my proudest moments was watching my daughter’s pass-out parade when she also became a firefighter back in 2007. We became one of the first mother/daughter firefighters in the country. She has since left the service for personal reasons, but is likely to reapply at some stage.
As for me, I’ve never looked back. I am now station commander and during the day I’m the fire safety manager for North Bedfordshire. I am also on the fire investigation team – we attend incidents to investigate the causes of fires. If it hadn’t been for those men coming into the hotel bar that night I would not be a firefighter now. Being a firefighter is a rewarding career that women are more than capable of doing.