Star Interview: ‘I am proof women can lead fire service’

Alex Johnson is the new assistant chief officer at South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue. Picture: Chris Etchells
Alex Johnson is the new assistant chief officer at South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue. Picture: Chris Etchells

Alex Johnson is getting to grips with the biggest job of her career. After 25 years with Derbyshire’s fire service it was a huge decision to join the brigade in neighbouring South Yorkshire as its assistant chief fire officer – but it’s a move she won’t regret.

“There’s certainly not many women in these senior positions. You can probably count on one hand how many of us there are in the country. So I feel quite privileged, as if I’m a bit of a trailblazer. I want to see more women coming into the service and progressing up the ranks, and I guess I’m proof you can do that.”

Since starting in December as South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue’s third-in-command after chief officer James Courtney and deputy Martin Blunden, Alex has been visiting the county’s 22 stations and has noticed some immediate differences.

“My head’s been spinning with all these new things,” she says brightly, ducking into a side office to talk at SYFR’s base on Eyre Street in Sheffield. “I’ve come from a shire brigade and this is a metropolitan brigade, so there are different ways of working. And they’re busier, because it’s a big city and there are more people, so there are more incidents here. It’s exciting, there’s always something happening.”

Householders have long been urged by fire chiefs to ditch risky chip pans and install smoke alarms, but in 2018 the messages still need restating.

“We saw a real decline in chip pan ownership and then an increase. People have put that down to poverty and things like that. If they’re looked after properly, they’re not a problem, but when they do set on fire they are quite serious and we do see a lot of damage and injuries.

“If you haven’t got a smoke alarm, there’s nobody to warn you there’s a fire. People think they’ll wake up coughing like they do in the movies, but we know while they’re asleep people can take a few breaths of smoke and be unconscious. To me, if you value your family, your property and those items you can never replace, have smoke alarms. One on every floor of the home.”

People are recommended to plan their escape route. “We all have this belief that when there’s a fire, we’ll go downstairs and out of the front door. But what if the fire is where the door is? If you haven’t thought about it, at three o’clock in the morning you’ll wake up with that panic.”

As busy as South Yorkshire is, the county is ‘safer than ever’, Alex insists. Campaigns, the fact newer houses have smoke alarms fitted as standard, and ‘safe and well’ checks at people’s homes are credited with cutting the number of serious blazes.

“We’ve still got a percentage of people we need to get to. People are vulnerable because of their age, the accommodation they live in, disabilities – we’re working with other agencies. That’s the biggie. Most of the fire deaths we’ve had have been known by other organisations.”

The brigade wants to avoid ‘duplicating effort’.

“What we’ll find is social care may be going to an address, the police have been and then we get involved. Why can’t we have a one-stop shop for that person?”

Alex – Alexandra – grew up in Derbyshire. Her parents live in Ripley and have a smallholding; her mother was a social worker and her dad made ice cream. “Nothing like me,” Alex says wryly.

After school Alex set her sights on a job in the public sector, and worked for British Rail in an administrative role for seven years, but found the work ‘too desk-bound’. “The fire service ticked all the boxes because it meant every day was different. I love talking to people and genuinely making a difference.”

Alex, 50, is married to Paul, who works for Rolls-Royce, and together they have a 12-year-old daughter. The family is moving from Mickleover, Derby, to the Waverley estate in Catcliffe.

As assistant chief she is heavily involved in contingency planning – the terrorism threat level isn’t displayed in the foyer at Eyre Street for nothing.

“Since the Manchester bombing, we’ve looked at what our actions would be and where our rendezvous points would be.”

Firefighters helped police when suspected terrorists were arrested in Sheffield in December. “We supported them with going into buildings, checking it was safe, identifying substances.”

Alex says, matter-of-factly: “People see firefighting as a dangerous job and there are times when firefighters will risk their lives to save somebody else’s.”

The standard of training, the equipment and the ‘command and control’ staff have of incidents has never been higher, she points out, while recalling the first big fire she attended, a blaze at a church that was ‘going well’, in firefighting parlance.

“I can remember being on probation and being so excited to see lots of flames and spending the whole night trying to put it out. We went to road accidents more than we did fires, and probably still do to an extent. There are more cars on the road and people drive too fast.”

The job requires a certain level of detachment. Even the worst emergencies are a valuable opportunity.

“We call them ‘good jobs’ which sounds really bad. But to us a good job is where we get to use the equipment and skills we’ve learned. If we’re not calm, we can’t expect anybody else to be. Firefighters are very resourceful. Teamwork is the most important thing.”

Alex is a member of the Executive Committee of Women in the Fire Service, set up in the early 1990s.

“When I joined there were very few women to make contact with and discuss uniform fitting, or female facilities on stations. You were coming into a man’s job.”

The fire service has recruited women since the 1980s, but ‘people conformed to fit in’, Alex believes. “You can be feminine to be a firefighter. All our firefighters aren’t 6ft tall and 6ft wide. You need different people with different skills.”

Now five per cent – around 1,800 – of firefighters in England are women, according to figures from 2016.

The gender pay gap isn’t an issue – “Different services pay different amounts, but we get paid the same” – but there is a push to recruit firefighters from under-represented ethnic minorities.

“If we’ve got a diverse workforce they are more likely to be welcomed into communities. They’ll have an understanding of what makes that community tick.”

Nearly 200 women went to a training and development weekend organised by the committee last year.

“I certainly believe we’ve improved. It helped me years ago, so now it’s really important to me that I can support women in the fire service nationally.”

‘Grenfell disaster sent out ripples’

The Grenfell Tower disaster that killed 71 people ‘sent ripples out nationally’ among firefighters, says Alex Johnson.

Flames tore through the 27-storey block of flats in West London last June. It is believed the type of cladding used on the building contributed to the fire’s spread.

“My husband woke me up that morning and said ‘You need to see this’. I can remember looking and thinking ‘How is that possible?’ I would guess the London firefighters went above and beyond because you never want to leave somebody. That was a horrendous incident that created more work for services around the country. We had to go and inspect high-rise buildings we assumed were safe. We all like a good job, but not one like that.”