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‘We need a female version of fireman Sam’ - Drive for more women to go into firefighting

PUBLISHED: 18:19 21 August 2018 | UPDATED: 08:16 23 August 2018

Josephine Reynolds firefighter passing out at Wymondham Fire Station in September 1983. Picture: Archant library

Josephine Reynolds firefighter passing out at Wymondham Fire Station in September 1983. Picture: Archant library

Archant

Calls have been made to encourage more women to become firefighters after it emerged that 97pc in Norfolk are men.

Josephine Reynolds at a grass fire in Brandon in 1984. Picture: Archant libraryJosephine Reynolds at a grass fire in Brandon in 1984. Picture: Archant library

Of the 740 firefighters employed by Norfolk Fire and Rescue Service, only 14 are full-time women.

It comes amid a national drive to address what, if anything, puts women off entering the industry - with London Fire Brigade putting it down to media stereotypes of “musclebound men”.

Jo Reynolds, hailed by the media as the UK’s first female firefighter started her training with Norfolk Fire and Rescue in 1982 and served for four years with their Thetford division.

She said the public perception of all firefighters being “muscle-bound action men” amused her.

North Lynn retained firefighters Becky Hornigold and Mel Tibbs at a fire in west Norfolk in July. Picture: Ian BurtNorth Lynn retained firefighters Becky Hornigold and Mel Tibbs at a fire in west Norfolk in July. Picture: Ian Burt

The former firefighter said: “The guys I worked with were far from the hunky stereotype, they were just normal guys.”

However she believed the misconception was causing serious problems for the fire department in recruiting women.

On top of negative stereotypes, Ms Reynolds also blamed the lack of visible female firefighters in the media.

She said: “We need a female version of fireman Sam so kids can see from a young age that girls can do the job. If we had female firefighters going into primary schools in uniform it would prove it’s possible.

Firefighters dealing with a gorse blaze at Snettisham Scalp. Picture: Ian BurtFirefighters dealing with a gorse blaze at Snettisham Scalp. Picture: Ian Burt

“The lack of female visibility in the industry means it’s not a job women will necessarily think of applying for.”

Ms Reynolds, who has published a book about her experience, also said more information from services on what is required of firefighters would be helpful.

She said: “The fire department need to tell potential fire-fighters more about what the job involves. Physical strength and putting out blazes is only a small part, there’s other aspects like first aid and fire prevention that are equally important.”

The 54-year-old believes it is up to fire departments to reach out to woman and prove they are welcome.

When she began her training in 1982 at the age of 17, she said the masculine stereotype didn’t even cross her mind.

However the landslide of media attention hailing her as a pioneer for women in the fire brigade only fuelled her determination to prove herself on behalf of all women.

She added: “Women can bring absolute determination to the job, as well as a huge capacity for mental strength.”

‘There’s no aspect of the job that a woman can’t do’

When Jenny Schamp started her career with the fire service, some of her colleagues believed women “weren’t cut out for the job”.

Twenty years later, she wants others to know that there’s “no aspect of the job that a woman can’t do”.

Although historically seen as a career for men, Ms Schamp said she knew from a young age that she wanted to be a firefighter.

The operational support officer for Norfolk Fire and Rescue said it was the variety and chance to make a real difference in her community that made up her mind.

She said: “The proudest moment of my life was realising there are people walking around Norfolk today that wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t for the fire department.”

She added that technological advances making equipment lighter mean that physical strength is now far less important than general fitness, team work and excellent training.

Recruitment drive

At the start of August, Norfolk Fire and Rescue Service launched a recruitment drive for full-time firefighters.

It came after a string of taster sessions around the county, which saw more than 260 people attend in Norwich, King’s Lynn in Gorleston and turn a hand to practice drills, written tests and fitness requirements.

At the time, Margaret Dewsbury, chairman of Norfolk County Council’s communities committee said they particularly welcomed applications from groups which are underrepresented in the service - including women.

She also said: “The work of the modern firefighter is very demanding and varied, as we have seen from the weather pressures in recent weeks which have seen our firefighters rise to the challenge of a huge increase in open fires as well as their continued attendance at day to day incidents.”

For more information visit norfolk.gov.uk/safety/norfolk-fire-and-rescue-service/recruitment

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