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Kathryn Duncan is London Fire Brigade’s Station Commander for Forest Hill fire station. She’s also elected as National Secretary of the Women’s Committee of the Fire Brigades Union. We caught up with her to chat about what it’s like to be a female firefighter.

Tell us a little bit about your story. What inspired you to become a firefighter?

My father was a firefighter, so it was a natural choice for me. I grew up knowing women could be firefighters and didn’t realise, even after training school, that some women had never even considered it, and that this alone, was a large barrier to recruiting women.

Why do you think there aren’t as many women firefighters as men?

Firefighting is traditionally seen as a male role. The media can be part of the problem. I still see the term “firemen” used on mainstream channels such as the BBC and Sky News. It’s not really funny, but I have seen the term used next to a photograph of a female firefighter. We’re slowly gaining in numbers and do this by spreading awareness with the communities we serve. I hope the photograph of myself in this magazine will be seen by at least one woman who thinks “I can do that!”.

Kathryn at Forest Hill
How are the issues of gender diversity being addressed by fire services?

Traditionally fire services have not had to run recruitment campaigns to get the number of firefighters required. When the Government made this a measurable criteria to ensure diversity,  more research was carried out on how to recruit from underrepresented groups. This led to a bigger uptake in women applying. We also run workshops demonstrating the fitness test and other requirements. Some of these workshops are female only. This gives some women the space they need to see how they measure up. The tests to become a firefighter are exactly the same for men and women.

What are the main characteristics you need to choose this career as a woman?

Teamwork, teamwork, teamwork. Everything we do, from fighting fires to fire protection, to education, we do it all as a team. You should have compassion, be inclusive and have a good level of self awareness. These attributes build strong teams, keeping each other and our communities safe. I should also add all genders need these attributes it doesn’t just fall on the women.

What do you think the barriers, or perceived barriers, are for women applying?

When watching movies about firefighting I often think “really, that’s not how I perceive my job”? Yes, that is our main business is to fight fires and we need to be trained and prepared to respond to operational incidents, but there is far more to being a firefighter than fires. We also attend road traffic incidents, chemical spillages, people who may be locked in or locked out, animal rescues – there is such huge variety and no one day is ever the same. The over dramatization of firefighting can put some women off. Just not knowing it is a job for women is also a massive hurdle.

Are there any provisions made for parents’ circumstances such as childcare for example?

Working on a fire station follows a set eight day rolling shift pattern where you work two days then two nights then four days off.  Like many jobs it would be inappropriate to bring children to work. However, this shift pattern gives parents a lot more time at home with the kids than a Monday to Friday 9-5 job. You do miss some birthdays and special holidays as people don’t stop calling 999 on holidays but in the main my colleagues with children like the shifts. It certainly allows the Dads to be a lot more hands-on parents than some of their friends. However, if you happen to be a single mum with no family around it can be challenging to get night shift childcare. Some of my friends in this situation employ au-pairs.

What does a typical day look like in the life of a female firefighter?

Exactly the same as a male firefighter! We do the same checks, the same training and wear the same fire gear. It starts with a roll call then we check the fire appliances and our breathing apparatus. We may then go and visit a resident on the fire station’s ground and check their smoke alarm or visit a business premise to check their fire safety and make a plan, in the event of a fire in that building. There will be a fire drill (a pretend incident) or a lecture. This takes place while waiting for the ‘bells to drop’ and respond to a 999 call from someone who needs our help. Oh, and I should add, there will be multiple cups of tea drank throughout the day.


If you would like to hear more about being a firefighter please get in touch outreach@london-fire.gov.uk for details on joining our team. Also, we are currently recruiting for the next generation fire cadets for more info visit: https://www.london-fire.gov.uk/community/young-people/fire-cadets/joining-fire-cadets/

Read more about inspiring women like Kathryn here.


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