Real women drive fire engines..
IN August 2006, Charlotte Clark, joined the ranks of women who don fire suits daily and do one of Britain’s most dangerous, male orientated jobs. SINEAD NOLAN asks how it feels to be one of Britain’s rare female firefighters…
WHEN you think of a fire-fighter, what do you picture – perhaps a buff Superman-type with a hose-pipe? A man with a stocky build, carrying women and children over his shoulder? How about a petite brunette? If you live in Worksop, chances are you will get all of the above.
Charlotte Clark, 27, originally from Retford, has been serving as a full time firefighter for Worksop since August 2006.
Pretty and fire-savvy, Charlotte is one of the seven full-time firefighters to serve at the station in Worksop.
And in her time as a fire woman here, Charlotte has proved to be just as competent as her all-male-colleagues.
Since the age of eight Charlotte has wanted to become a firefighter. But unlike many childish young dreams, her dream never faded.
“I couldn’t be an office worker,” says Charlotte matter of fact “I wanted something that challenged me every day.”
Putting out fire certainly is that – but Charlotte didn’t go straight into a full-time role. She served as a retained firefighter for around five years, who provide emergency cover to more than 60% of the UK.
Retained firefighters are in effect, a dedicated group of men and women who are ‘on call’ to respond to a range of emergencies when their alerter sounds. But this meant she also had to have another job at the same time.
“For many years I was trying to be a full-time firefighter. I think they thought I would give up eventually!” Despite these setbacks she never gave up and finally got her dream.
“My biggest accomplishment was going from part-time to full-time” says Charlotte “I was so happy!”
In the spring of 1998 the then Home Secretary, Jack Straw, went on record as saying the fire service’s record was unacceptable as regarding women. The inspectorate had found overwhelming opposition to women firefighters with the over-riding view that women were neither strong enough nor fit enough to do the job.
Luckily for Charlotte, the male firefighters down at the fire station accept her for the brave and dedicated worker she is.
“I love my boys,” she says, “though boys are harder to work with than women, you wouldn’t believe it but they actually gossip more!” she laughs “You have to prove your worth – but I believe I am accepted. They do give me stick, but we all give one another stick – My advice would be you have to give as good as you get!”
But despite success stories like Charlotte, in the UK women only represent about one half of one percent of full-time firefighters, and 1.5% of retained firefighters – proportionally four times less then the US.
Britain also started a lot later then other countries. While America had female firefighters as early as the 1930’s it wasn’t until August 1976 that 25-year-old Mary Langdon made UK history by becoming Britain’s first female firefighter. Now in the UK there are more than 200 full-time women firefighters and about 200 more serving as retained firefighters.
But Fire fighting, can be a tough and demanding job as Charlotte found out, and she admits there has been scary moments.
“A friend’s mother was involved in a road traffic accident which I was working on,” she says “Then the adrenaline just kicked in. You need to get them out regardless of whether you know them. Yeah it does make me go all goosy to see someone I know in an accident, but you just have to get on with it,” says the brave Charlotte.
But she is also realistic, and knows not to blame herself if things don’t work out “It might sound cruel but for every three lives you lose if you save just one persons life it is worth it.”
Asked if she plans to stay much longer she laughs. ‘They’ll get another 30 years out of me I expect” she says. “There are some higher positions going which I was going to apply for but I have plenty of time – at the moment I just want to muck in.”
Charlotte admits to loving the station she is at, at the moment “I don’t see it as a job anymore, I see it as a family,” she says. “I would advise any women who want to do it, to go for it. It really is a fantastic job.”
· In 1993 Networking Women in the Fire Service (www.nwfs.net) was formed in the UK.
· The drive to get more women firefighters is now headed by women. The new Fire and Rescue Minister Angela Smith is the first woman to be appointed as minister responsible for fire and rescue.
· Every year there are more than 68,000 fires in people’s homes, resulting in 400 deaths and 14,000 injuries
· Firefighters start on a wage of £24,645 rising to £25,474 when they successfully complete their training. This rises again to £31,275 when they complete further training and are classed as ‘fully competent’.
· To become a firefighter you must be at least 18 years of age, but can apply when you are 17. There are no height restrictions and no qualifications are required, but applicants must hold a full UK driving license
· London Fire Brigade has the highest number of women fire officers in Britain – even though just 3 per cent of its firefighters are female, figures show.