Women ‘under-represented’ in firefighter workforce

Image caption Karen Bradley says it is “amazing” when young girls see women in the fire service

Women are still under-represented in the firefighter workforce, figures have shown.

Despite major recruitment drives to encourage more women into operational roles, they still make up just 5% of firefighter staff.

But rates have increased slightly over the last few years.

Services are holding regular open days and information sessions to bust myths and stereotypes about who can be a firefighter.

Of the Mid and West Wales service’s 1,093 firefighters, 61 are women – a rate of 6%, compared to 4% in 2015.

And in the South Wales service, of its 1,398 firefighters, just 42 are women, or 3% – but the service noted 12% of the 68 candidates who had been offered jobs at its most recent intake were women.

In the North Wales service, 57 of the 632 firefighters are women, or 9%, up from 6% in 2014.

Karen Bradley, 42, was the only female firefighter at the station in Aberystwyth until her colleague Cara Nesbit joined.

“Me and Cara, we’re quite girly girls, I’ll say ‘let’s have a look at your nails, have you had your eyebrows done’, we’re not what people expect when they think of female firefighters,” she said.

“My first shout was an alarm going off in Morrisons on a Friday night and I had parents saying ‘look, it’s a lady firefighter, I told you there were ladies doing it’.

“I think firefighters are generally held in high esteem and for little girls to see you doing it, it’s amazing.”

Ms Bradley joined the service three years ago despite thinking she would be “too old”.

Six months in, her husband Phil was diagnosed with terminal blood cancer and she almost quit.

“He said ‘you’ve worked so hard, if and when I’m not here, that’s when you’re going to need this structure’, he was adamant – and I didn’t want to go yet.

“He had treatment, he had a transplant, I could be up all night with him one night and then out all night on calls the next night.”

‘You might save a life’

Ms Bradley’s husband is currently in remission, but the nature of his illness means it keeps returning and has to be treated again.

“You get into this because you want to help someone – somebody’s worst day is a day you get to help. One day you might save a life.

“In my first big fire we lost a lady. It’s difficult, nothing can prepare you.”

She has also had to make some big decisions.

She was second on the scene at a crash as it was on the route she was already taking home – and had to decide whether to free a trapped woman without any tools or crew.

“I was in my pyjamas and flip flops and a hoodie, and I thought ‘should I move her? What if I do and she ends up paralysed?’

“I didn’t know how long the crew were going to be but that was hard, it felt like forever but they were there quickly.

“That particular accident weighed on my mind for ages.”

Image caption Cara Nesbit joined the fire service 18 months ago

But Ms Bradley said the job was incredibly rewarding, and she had not felt put off by the potential dangers.

“It’s harder for your family, you know where you are and what you’re doing, for them you’re here then you’re gone and we can’t communicate what’s going on and when you’re going to be back.

“But we’re doing this because one day, you will actually save a life.”

And Ms Nesbit, who has has been an on-call firefighter for 18 months, said she felt women in the job were now “the norm”.

“I don’t feel any different to anyone else, they’re definitely trying to encourage more females to join, holding female taster days.”

‘No such thing as a typical firefighter’

Mid and West Wales Fire Service said it held taster sessions and “have a go” days to help prospective candidates understand the requirements of the job, but said it realised women are still under-represented.

“As a service we recognise that there is more work to be done for our workforce to better reflect the communities that we serve, and as part of that, we are always looking to engage with women who are interested in joining,” a spokesman said.

North Wales Fire and Rescue Service has seen a steady rise in female applicants, with women making up 22% of apprentice applications for the 2020 scheme, compared to 6% in 2015.

It regularly holds “positive action events” to encourage applications from under-represented groups, including women, “to reduce the amount of people who may deselect themselves based on misconceptions, old stereotypes or myths,” a spokeswoman said.

“Our main message when recruiting is that there is no such thing as a typical firefighter.”

South Wales’ area manager Jason Evans said it was “crucial to have a diverse workforce”, with the service holding a series of events across the area to give an insight into the recruitment process and physical requirements.

It also aims events towards school-aged audiences to change perceptions of the role and break down stereotypes.

“A career in the fire service is exciting, challenging, varied and rewarding, where you can make a real difference,” he said.

Read more: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-51309656

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