Heartfelt and honest words from four chiefs

Dawn Whittaker, Chief Fire Officer, East Sussex Fire & Rescue Service

Some of you may have seen the social media storm around #FirefightingSexism and the Fireman Sam campaign that London Fire Brigade (LFB) has led. Irrespective of your own perspective and views on this it’s important to bust a few myths and look at why LFB started the campaign. Of course, this was not about attacking a cartoon
– it was as a result of surveys with women and staff feedback.

They commented on the issue and evidenced the gender stereotyping that can lead to media exposure limiting children’s outlook which can lead to bullying of both boys and girls. The boy with long hair, or the boy that goes to ballet and dance classes or chooses to play the violin, or the girl who won’t wear pink, or who prefers to play with construction toys.

Of course, the media have chosen to turn the intellectual debate about stereotyping into media soundbites and have attempted to present the campaign as ‘PC feminist babble’. Personally, I am appalled at the comments on Good Morning Britain’s Twitter account after Dany Cotton, Commissioner of LFB appeared to try and explain the campaign to Piers Morgan.

I know some female colleagues don’t want attention brought to the issue and I completely understand that perspective too, as firefighting is not a gender issue. However, the perpetuation of the use of ‘Fireman’ in media and newspaper articles is just unhelpful – the media manage to refer to Doctors as Doctors – so why not Firefighters as Firefighters? Hopefully, we all share the view that it really should not be too hard for the media to use the term, Firefighter.

Some of you might avoid social media like the plague, and I get that. But it can be an important insight into others perspectives on an issue and frankly, some of the comments made on some Fire and Rescue Service accounts have been shocking, full of vitriolic and inappropriate language, and ill-informed and inaccurate. The saddest part is that it has not just been from people who are tweet baiting, some of it comes from serving staff in our sector and partners of serving staff too.

However, there is a real upside and a positive. It has got people talking and also allowed for some myth-busting. Yes, the entry tests are the same for women! No, women don’t have to lift an 18 stone casualty on their own for an effective rescue (team approach). No, we don’t ask for equalities information on application forms to bias who we invite to interview (that is part of our statutory public duty to gather information to report as a public service). And lots more of the same.

The downside is that some may feel it’s an opportunity to knock the sector or colleagues – to strengthen old stereotypes – that really it is only men that have the physical strength to do the job. But we know that’s wrong and that’s not just insulting and demeaning to women, it’s insulting and damaging to ALL OF US and to our whole sector.

When millions of women on social media see this sort of rhetoric, do you think it could affect their choices and their view of whether the FRS is a place they would choose? And when parents read it, what might they say to their daughters, or sons for that matter, about their career choices? All our good work on positive action undone.

The fact is, it’s true that what we condone, we permit. And so having a voice on this is important and if National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC), Women in the Fire Service UK (WFS), and other representative bodies work together, I’m sure the voice will strengthen. We should also acknowledge the really progressive work some services are doing.

And by the way, lest anyone should be under the misapprehension that this is just an Ops Staff issue – nope – we know that we also need to tackle and strengthen representation across the workforce in all FRS staff. Some of you might have seen the campaigns #DifferentRolesSameGoals and #HeadSetHeros, which aim to promote staff in other areas of the business and ensure their value to the sector is recognised too.  

As delegates come together at the Training & Development event in June, you might have some healthy discussions on this subject. Good. It’s useful to share views and perspectives.


Chris Blacksell, Chief Fire Officer, Humberside Fire and Rescue Service

So the day started as most do really, by disagreeing with Piers Morgan! To be honest, I rarely notice him, but his comments around women put off joining the Fire and Rescue Services by the use of language like Fireman Sam and not being likely to ‘have what it takes to fight fires’ piqued my interest. Mainly because he’d missed the point completely, and also because I read it as a veiled excuse for the media using ‘Firemen’ in headlines too.

Whilst I’d prefer Sam to be renamed as a Firefighter, I do understand the branding issues etc. The media don’t have those issues and so shouldn’t get a free pass when they do it. My point to him was that it’s not about an adult being offended or choosing a different career, it’s about the fact, and it is a fact, that language subconsciously impacts young children. I don’t want great Firefighters of the future being put off applying without even knowing it.

There’s a selfish reason too of course. I want the biggest and most diverse group of applicants to pick from, to make sure we get to pick the best future Firefighters.

Anyway, after replying to him, like many other Chief Fire Officers, and calling him out on it, my Twitter account exploded. I didn’t realise why at first. It turned out he’d quoted my reply and accused me of waging a ‘gender war recruitment strategy’ and said it wasn’t working.

After a few moments of smiling whilst wondering if I should include ‘Gender Warrior’ on my email signature, I pointed out that he was spectacularly wrong. In Humberside Fire and Rescue Service our recruitment strategy is working (current whole-time recruit course is 32% women). That’s not due to waging a gender war, that’s by making a conscious decision to deliver our pledges to the #HeForShe movement and continually making small improvements in language and policies to make it increasingly less likely that the best people are put off applying.

Once you’ve applied, the selection is blind to gender anyway, but by dramatically increasing diverse applicants I’m able to better achieve my selfish ambition of employing the best people for the job, and that’s working.

The rest of the online debate included me being told to ‘grow some balls’, getting referred to as a #SillyEggHead and being told that women don’t want to fight fires for the same reason that I wouldn’t want to spend all day doing bikini waxes! I chose to simply reply by pointing out that at least the title of Beautician was gender neutral so that wouldn’t have subconsciously put me off while growing up!

Despite comments to me, the whole episode made me realise, yet again, that the responses I was getting were so much less vile than some of those being received by women Firefighters in every role involved in the same debate. It gave me, yet again, increased respect for what women in the job have to put up with, and a renewed desire to do what I can to reduce negative aspects in the future.

I do think it needs men to speak up about gender equality, although like many I’m also conscious that my words could come across as patronising. I hope they don’t, but whether they do or not I’ll keep on trying to say and do what I think is right. I realise if I choose not to speak out then I’d very quickly blend back in as just another white male senior officer, but I also realise that’s another example of my privilege, because anyone from any minority in our Fire Family, including women, don’t have that choice. So I’ll continue to speak out, and if that upsets Piers Morgan? Well, that’s just a bonus!


Dave Walton, Deputy Chief Fire Officer, West Yorkshire Fire & Rescue Service

I thought I would take a moment to share with you a bit of commentary on my recent Twitter wrangle with broadcaster, former Fleet Street tabloid editor and current Good Morning Britain host Piers Morgan.

I was still reflecting on our successful International Women’s Day events earlier this month at West Yorkshire Fire & Rescue Service, when I saw Piers Morgan wade in on the Fireman Sam debate on Twitter.

Now, just for context, we all love Fireman Sam but there was a bid in recent times to change his name to Firefighter Sam to promote inclusivity, to which the creators declined. I can understand their point that the Fireman Sam brand has been built over many decades and being written in 1987 he was of course true to his time.  

However, when Piers Morgan missed the point so monumentally, I felt I had to step in to defend our younger generations like five-year-old Grace who I met at Ilkley fire station. She’d been told by a classmate that she could not be a firefighter because ‘firefighters were men’.

My point is that we should try and use the correct term wherever possible so no little person, who is at an impressionable age, believes doors are closed to them. This is how I responded.

So, with my following of just over 3,000 on Twitter (which I have proudly built up over a number of years) I expected this would drive some healthy debate, however when Piers responded with his 6.5m followers – I knew things were getting ‘interesting’.

Therein ensued a ‘Twitter storm’ which various fire and rescue service personnel got involved with – some Chief Fire Officers expressing their feelings on the topic too.

And before you know it, London Fire Brigade Commissioner Dany Cotton was invited onto Good Morning Britain to have it out with Piers.

Piers also called for women firefighters to be called Fire Women.

South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue Service got involved posting a video they created for International Women’s Day, showing children being surprised to see women and men in roles they see as gender specific. Worth a watch by the way.

As the days went on I received a barrage of comments via social media, some positive but some negative, to such a point that Twitter messaged me to check I was ok. So why put myself through it? Well, the fact Piers Morgan was involved, whether you agree with him or not, opened up the issue to an audience I could never have dreamt of.

And whilst some people, trolls or keyboard warriors, may jump on the opportunity to unleash their fury at me, there are many more who may be less inclined to make public comment (indeed a number of you have raised the issue with me since this happened)  but they may nonetheless quietly consider the impact the term Fireman might have on the young minds they have the power to influence – mothers, fathers, grandparents and teachers.

It’s for everyone to decide for themselves what their viewpoint is and I am definitely not trying to be the PC Police! I’m also not trying to take away from the dedicated service and heroics of many Firemen who have passed through the Fire and Rescue Service over many decades. My own father being one of them, and that’s how I talk about him.

What I would say is that we strive to represent the communities we serve and currently we have 5% female firefighters among our operational staff.

We want more women to join us but that does not mean that the entry tests to get in are made any easier – because they don’t need to be. There are many women out there perfectly capable of passing our entrance requirements if only they would consider the FRS as a career. I’m fully aware it’s going to be a ‘long game’ and that’s why I am asking you to do one thing.

If you go into schools to give talks, or if you have visits from the Scouts or Brownies, or even when you interact with communities at open days, please let families and young children know the Fire Service is a place for men and women alike.

There is another side to this discussion too, albeit not the one I was making in this Twitter exchange – I only had so many characters to play with. Its 2019 and it’s simply not fair that women officers still get ignored when the public are looking for the ‘bloke in charge’, it’s not fair that collective groups of firefighters are referred to as ‘blokes’, ‘fellas’ or ‘Firemen’ when the group clearly contains women.

And it’s not fair that female staff have to continually deal with the public incredulity that there are women firefighters – ‘Oh, you’re a girl’! I often hear the retort that ‘it’s only a word’ – but that’s exactly the point – it’s only a word, so what’s the great drama involved in referring to all staff as Firefighters? That’s what we employ people as, that’s the term we use in the FRS, and that’s what we need to educate the public and media to understand.

It’s very simply about respect for ALL of our staff! Let’s not close the door of opportunity on a five year old girl who could be tomorrow’s Dany Cotton.


Terry McDermott, Chief Fire Officer, Derbyshire Fire and Rescue

Given the social media interactions around women in the fire service and the appearance of Chief Fire Officer Dany Cotton on breakfast television, I thought it would be useful to give you a few of my thoughts on the subject of diversity.

I know some of you may not have seen any of this and don’t use Twitter. Basically, a row erupted on social media sparked by Piers Morgan around the use of the word ‘Fireman’ in relation to the cartoon Fireman Sam. I responded, and off it went. The general gist of my response was that Fireman Sam isn’t the issue, the real issue is the lack of diversity in the fire service. Unfortunately, this bit was lost on quite a few of the 106 people who have (so far) sent me a reply. Many of the replies were complimentary.

Nowadays, more than ever, having a good level of diversity in the Fire and Rescue Service when we are heading out into our communities to drive down risk and improve public safety is almost as important as having water in the tank. Without it, we are not going to be as effective as we could be. I’m not saying we are not effective, I just think we could be better, especially in regard to new and emerging communities. We are not going to engage as widely as we could and we are not going to have access to the whole population when communicating safety messages and when we recruit.

If we unintentionally exclude people from our workforce or unconsciously deny people our services around community engagement, we are failing as a public service, and in danger of not serving the public to the best level we could. It is that important. We wouldn’t run around with half a tank of water, we shouldn’t settle for a lack of diversity.

I feel that the vast majority of our people understand this. I see it every day and in every station and department that I visit. But, I do think we could all do better when it comes to championing it and I absolutely include myself in that assessment.

It is hard, it is uncomfortable and it can be a bit of a lonely place to stand up and speak up for diversity in any walk of life, but in the fire service, I think it is really tough. Particularly so if you are from one of the underrepresented groups. We are a white male dominated environment, we are a service steeped in tradition, some good, some probably due for revising. Breaking out of that place to raise the issue of diversity is tough, it’s no surprise to me that people remain silent, under the radar, given the flack that flies around when you step outside of your comfort zone.

This week I have ventured out into that environment and had some experience of the flack. I have to say the experience has been an eye-opener. It has certainly raised my respect for women in the fire service who put up with varying degrees of bias about being a firefighter on a daily basis, particularly when they go out into the public arena. If we are honest, they also experience bias whilst in the sanctuary of the station on occasion.

This blog is focussed on women in the fire service because of the events of this week, but I know that there are other groups that are underrepresented and experience similar pressures.

On the upside, I’ve also learned this week that when people like me, white men who are in the service, speak up on behalf of women colleagues it is really appreciated by them. It’s worth putting yourself out there to give them the support they deserve and when you do, it isn’t such a lonely place after all.

So, what are the conclusions I can draw from this experience? Well for starters, as I said at the beginning, it is not all about Fireman Sam, but if we are going to improve the diversity of the service we do need to engage with and inspire younger people for the very future of the service.

If we have a strong team culture in our service and I believe we do, we need to make sure we are there for each other and take inclusion seriously. Why can’t we all be allies to the cause?