Who are the women in the Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Service? Fighting fires and stereotypes
There are 32 female operational firefighters in Oxfordshire County Council’s Fire and Rescue Service. They are mums, shopkeepers, marathon runners - regular people doing extraordinary things.
It is not just about fires and fitness, it’s emergency planning, educating on safety and prevention and safeguarding people in our communities.
For the frontline staff, it’s about fast thinking, putting equipment together, collaborating with other blue light services, being resilient.
The service does a lot more than putting out fires: The clue is in “rescue”, with the Service dealing with a variety of situations like flooding, responding to road, rail and air traffic accidents, dealing with chemical hazards and spills, looking after the vulnerable.
“You don’t have to be the incredible Hulk or Lara Croft, I am neither”, said Rebecca Rimmer. She joined the fire service when she was 21 and never looked back “I would be out with a friend who was a firefighter and she used to be called to incidents and I always wondered about those emergencies, as it all sounded exciting and rewarding.” Rebecca has been with the fire service for 19 years and has two children who are very proud to have a “firefighter mummy”.
“I like helping people and care for people. I joined a station that already had female fire-fighters, but even so, I had never thought about the service being male-dominated. It’s like a second family to me, the friendship and support you receive from colleagues is amazing”. “I am lucky to have a supportive family and great colleagues that I can talk to” said Rebecca.
The main qualities that the fire service is looking for is “determination, enthusiasm, and an open mind. You need to have a positive, nothing can phase me attitude”, she stated.
Shelley Wright is 23 and has been with the fire service for 18 months: “I didn’t know which career path to take and couldn’t see myself in an office job and then I saw a banner for fire service recruitment. It was never mentioned at school as something we could do. When I joined the Wantage fire station there hadn’t been a woman there for five years. When the Chief talked to me recently about being the only woman there and I had forgotten about that - I am just part of the team”.
It’s not all plain sailing. “you do get a bit nervous when you first get alerted, but then the training kicks in” said Shelley. “The main gear weights 25 kilos and that’s without other equipment. However you get all the training you need and one of the advantages that I have in being smaller is that I fit into windows and other places that we need to access”.
Looking at barriers and opening fires station doors
Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Service is actively inviting applications from women as part of their wider recruitment campaign. Being a firefighter is a role that women generally don’t consider and there is now a strong focus on tackling the issue and challenging the reasons why women are not applying for the roles available. It all started in April after Simon Furlong became Chief Fire Officer. He explained “We want to inspire more women to join us so we reflect the communities we serve. Our change in approach, the open days and positive action days are already raising the interest from dozens of women wanting to and embrace community safety and firefighting as a career choice. Women can bring a different dimension to the job, the competences are the same but individuals may have a different experience, that’s why we value diversity”,
A 50/50 target is not easy to achieve when you are starting at around 6% of female firefighters in Oxfordshire (which is just above the national average of 5%). In fact, firefighting is one of the most sex-segregated jobs in the UK.
“It’s an ambitious initiative that involves looking at the barriers for recruitment. The first contact a potential recruit has with the fire service is really important and women may feel intimidated at the idea of knocking on the door of a fire station, so we have opened more ways for them to contact us, via social media, taster days etc. We have also arranged for potential recruits to meet with other female fire-fighters for an initial discussion”. Said Clare Sellman, Employee Resourcing and Development Manager. “Our first taster day was held in September and this was for ladies only, the day involved learning about the role in general, meeting role models, trying out the physical tests that form part of the selection day and providing any support and encouragement as required”, Clare Sellman added.
Fireman Sam and firefighter Penny
Rebecca Rimmer is helping in the campaign to recruit more women firefighters. “Some of the fitness aspects of the role can worry our potential female recruits”.. Upper body strength is crucial, many people may be fit, even run marathons, but not have developed that physical side that will allow them to lift ladders, carry weight, drag casualties and other tasks we are required to do”, she said. One way to overcome this being to help people who want to prepare for the assessments or perhaps have failed to reach the standard by a small margin by giving them a fitness programme that they can follow.
This programme has been developed by a firefighter who is also a personal trainer. In addition there are videos online showing the tests here .
“There is the perception that you have to be very young and fit. There is a required standard to ensure safety, however many female firefighters are mums, they come from all backgrounds and a range of ages,” Rebecca said. Parents for instance can become firefighters during the day, while kids are at school, as the day shifts can be amongst the times most difficult to cover.
Leadership support and backing from colleagues is also a key part of integrating women into the fire service. “Kids watch fireman Sam, don’t they? So, the stereotype is there, although there is also the character Penny Morris in the Pontypandy fire brigade. We try to create an environment that is professional and welcoming to everyone, women included. We challenge prejudices, an example being the language that is used: We are not firemen, we are firefighters”, said Steven Anderson, Abingdon Station Manager.
Taster Days for women and recruitment will continue in 2018. Interested, but not sure if it’s for you? Why not attend one of our taster days or have a chat with one of our female firefighters, email: email@example.com to register your interest and we will let you know when the next taster day is running.
We are recruiting whole-time firefighters in January 2018, applications will open on the 8th January and you can find out more about the role and application process here
Or if you would like to find out more about becoming an on-call firefighter visit: www.oxfordshire.gov.uk/oncallfirefighters or drop by your local station for a chat on their drill nights https://www.oxfordshire.gov.uk/cms/public-site/fire-stations