Women in the Fire Service UK (WFS) is a non-profit organisation which has provided support to women in the Fire and Rescue Services (FRS) during the past three decades. Originally formed in the early nineties as a self-help group, the organisation has grown and gained traction in recent years. With successful global campaigns for equality giving women’s issues more visibility, it’s a great time to get recognition for the work of the organisation.
Helping support women to be their best through bespoke coaching, training, development and access to supportive networks is the aim of the organisation. This support leads to better recruitment, retention and progression of women in all roles in the FRS. Equality for women in the FRS isn’t just a women’s issue – when women achieve their potential, everyone benefits.
Women in UK fire and rescue
The most recent Government fire statistics (2018) show that women make up only 5.7% of total firefighters in England – and underwhelmingly – less than 16% of total staff across all roles are women.
Despite these figures, the good news is that there are increasingly more campaigns aimed at encouraging women and other underrepresented groups to apply for positions, as well as promotions. It’s great to see some proactive services are leading the way on this, with female employees making up more than 20% of the total workforce.
Indeed, the Home Office launched a campaign in February 2019 to help the FRS address the issue of the sector being so male dominated. It’s a fact that there are many myths and harmful stereotypes that still need debunking, such as ‘that only men can do the job’ and that many girls still see firefighting as a man’s job.
WFS is almost entirely volunteer led (by a National Executive Committee) and just two paid full-time employees, including operations all-rounder Karen Smith. I joined in April 2019, after the decision was made to hire a marketing and communications professional to help increase exposure and build on the brand. Managed and run by and for women (though not exclusively), it’s a committee of dedicated, passionate elected representatives – many with demanding day jobs – spearheading the movement.
I say movement because it ‘feels’ and ‘looks’ like a movement. When I attended the three-day training and development event in June, I was blown away by the sheer energy, enthusiasm and ‘have a go’ attitude of delegates.
Throughout the event, I saw and heard a diverse group of people (not only women) encouraging, supporting and teaching each other things they never thought they could aspire to do. ‘Motivated’ and ‘inspired’ were words that came up again and again from delegates. Here are some comments from those who attended:
‘I would like to say to people who have not been before, both operational and non-operational, men or women to sign up for next year and go attend some amazing workshops and meet some inspirational people.’
‘It was my first year and hopefully next year I will attend as a firefighter.’
‘I feel reinvigorated and motivated to aim higher – it’s reminded me I am capable.’
‘I take a lot of positive energy from this event that keeps me going for another year. It shows me what women can do and mobilises me to push myself out of my comfort zone and try new things.’
The 248 delegates weren’t just firefighters; they were crew commanders, control officers, finance officers, administrators, deputy chief fire officers, data protection and diversity officers, HR and IT officers, solicitors, inspecting officers, apprentice firefighters and schools officers. Plus a group of over 80 eager volunteers, facilitators, trainers and guests.
The WFS training and development event has seen a huge increase in attendance and demand – delegates have risen sharply by 127% in the last five years. It also has an international reputation, with delegates this year from Lebanon, Switzerland and the Netherlands. Sponsors of the event are made up of industry-related businesses supportive of the aims of the organisation.
Chair of the future
Jules King was elected as Chair of WFS at the Annual General Meeting, held at the training event in 2019, where she took on the role from the Commissioner of the London Fire Brigade, Dany Cotton (now our Patron). Before this, she was Vice-Chair for six-years and has been part of WFS for over 18 years. Operational Group Manager for Hastings and Rother, Jules joined East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service aged 22 – there was just one female firefighter at her service at that time. Jules says:
‘I had attended the very first women in the fire service training and development event at the Fire Service College in 1996. Later on, I started on my journey with WFS, acting as a local representative for East Sussex, then going on to become a regional rep. Having the opportunity to get involved with WFS through these roles changed my perspective on the sector, and what was needed and why. Today, female achievements are often overlooked by the media, and the job is sometimes still referred to as ‘fireman’ rather than a ‘firefighter’.
‘I’d love to see the support network of WFS representatives grow and for WFS to become a recognised resource in every Fire and Rescue Service. We are keen to encourage those looking to get involved as local or regional representatives – they play a really important part in helping to promote and support our work.
‘There are a number of international women’s groups running camps for girls and young women and we’d like to be in a position in the future to offer something similar here in the UK. Role models are so important, but especially exposure to strong female role models from an early age.
‘Having someone to aspire to be like has been incredibly important to me and I hope that I can be that role model to others. My role models have been friends, family, those people who have inspired me through courage, bravery and determination and of course not just women.’
Working together in the UK and beyond
Nurturing international links with other women’s fire-service groups, especially in Germany, the USA and Switzerland, are incredibly important to WFS. Nicola Lown, WFS Honorary Officer, leads in supporting gender-equality work overseas. She acts as Commission Secretary for Women in Fire and Rescue Service’s Commission of the International Association of Fire and Rescue Services.
International humanitarian work is important too, and much of this work is led by Vice Chair, Caroline Anderson. This vital work sees collaborations with charities such as Fire Aid and Operation Florian, delivering successful projects in countries like Tajikistan, Lebanon and Sudan. Back in the UK, WFS also provides bespoke Women’s Development Programmes and are currently working on a Women’s Coaching and Mentoring Programme with Sheffield-based partners Women to Work.
WFS is funded by delegate fees and paid membership (individual and corporate). The membership is at the heart of the organisation, helping shape it’s direction – and membership is open to all.
Individual membership opens up more opportunities to access network peers, mentors and one-to-one support, the chance to input ideas, to help shape policy, and further opportunities to excel professionally. There’s also the satisfaction that comes with supporting the organisation to help grow its services.
Honorary Officer Alex Johnson leads on our work with corporate members, which currently stands at 29, with Warwickshire Fire and Rescue Service the latest to come on board. And there are many other FRS who have been with us since the very start, and year on year continue to renew their membership.
Support from both our corporate and individual members provides essential financial support to enable WFS to continue to deliver services, like our annual training and development events.
For more information, go to www.wfs.org.uk