Working Women: Meet Emma Watling, firefighter

Working Women: Meet Emma Watling, firefighter Emma in her station.

Entrepreneur, cartooning psychologist... now a firefighter. We sat down with Emma Watling to talk about what it's really like working for the London Fire Brigade.

Tell us about how you became a firefighter.

It was a bit of a happy accident. I went through uni with my career plan changing every few weeks. Then one evening, my mum saw an advert for Kent Fire and Rescue and said flippantly, ‘Why don't you become a firefighter?' It sounds really cheesy but it was like a little lightbulb moment. I could see myself as a firefighter and suddenly it seemed like the perfect career choice. I found out that the London Fire Brigade were at a careers event, went along and had a chat. I also went to an open day where I found out more about the application process and the fitness tests. Then it was a case of waiting to see when I could apply.

In the meantime, I ended up working for the LFB in an office-based role for a year or so. It was a great opportunity and I had a great year working with some lovely people, but it did confirm that an office-based environment wasn't for me. Soon as I could I sent in my application form and crossed all my fingers and toes that I'd get in.

Flickr: newsonline

Talk us through a typical day at work.

That's the brilliant thing: there isn't really a 'typical' day. There are things that we always do every shift, like equipment tests, but those fit in around a huge number of other things: from visiting a school to teach kids about fire safety, to visiting someone's home to fit smoke alarms. We also visit risks in our area like shopping centres or football grounds, and take part in joint training activities with other agencies like the London Ambulance Service and Met Police. We could be learning specific skills from specialist staff, like line rescue or fire investigation, or doing drills around the station. Some shifts I may not even be at my base station, so I get to meet new people and work in a different environment.

How does it feel when you're called out to a fire?

It is a huge adrenaline rush. We get info about what we get called to, but sometimes when you actually turn up it could be something different, so on the way there the anticipation builds up. If it's actually a fire situation it is a little scary, but that fear is a good thing – it stops you from becoming complacent. We’re taught how to deal with any number of different situations and the training does take over.

You're never going into a job alone – your buddy has your back and you have theirs. You keep your eyes open and concentrate on what you have to do and there's no feeling like knowing you've done your job well, whether it's getting someone out of a car wreck or putting out a fire. I've had plenty of days where I've gone home absolutely knackered, but totally happy at the same time.

As a female firefighter, do you ever face prejudice?

Not personally. I think a lot of it is about your own attitude as much as anyone else's. It's my responsibility to ensure that I can do the best job that I can, and be an asset to the team I'm in. I think if you show that you're willing to put the work in, muck in with everyone else, people respect you for it. It's the same in any job.

I've had times where people are surprised to see a female firefighter and I've been asked some brilliant questions (one such gem: ‘They let you climb the ladders and everything?’) – but I think it's mainly curiosity rather than the idea that a woman couldn't or shouldn't do it. I think as time progresses more old stereotypes are being broken down and attitudes continually change.

I do admire the first female to join the LFB as a firefighter though, back in the early 80s. I know from stories I've heard that it used to be a very different fire brigade. She would have faced huge prejudice. But it's because she persevered that there are over 330 female firefighters (out of a total of 5,337) in London today. We need female firefighters and that's something that the LFB understands. They’re trying to encourage women to take an interest in the job.

No women here. Flickr: Barry Lewis

What’s your favourite thing about your job? And your least favourite?

I love that I can say I do a job where I help people. Things I do during my shift can have an impact on people, either by directly helping them, or by teaching them something that may save their life. I also love that little kids wave at fire engines. It always makes me smile.

But sadly, I've witnessed many incidents were people who are supposed to care for others who are vulnerable just...don't. They don't do what they're supposed to and what always happens is someone is put at risk. We can only step in so far to try and rectify a situation like that and it's hard to remember sometimes that you can't fix everything.

Do you feel your work defines your identity?

It's definitely a big part of my identity that I'm very proud of, but it doesn't define me. I think anyone who wants to do a job like mine has certain characteristics but I hope that I'm more than 'Emma the firefighter'. I'm very aware that it's important to switch off from work. Sometimes, leaving at the end of my last night shift before my days off is a brilliant feeling – it's like turning the 'responsibility' switch down a notch!

What advice would you give a young woman wanting to become a firefighter?

Want it. Really want it… You will miss birthday events, you will miss Christmas and New Year parties. You will have to be the sober one at the pub on a Friday night because you have work the next morning and you will have to walk away from glorious summer afternoon BBQs to put on a duvet-type uniform and get hot, sweaty, smelly and dirty. Also, know that there is a very slim chance that if things go wrong, you could get hurt or even worse.

The London Fire Brigade website

You may not get accepted right away, but be willing to get stuck in. Do things: volunteer, get experience in different situations, meet as many people as possible. Be disciplined with yourself and be able to stick to rules and follow instructions. Make sure your fitness is as good as it can be. Also, allow yourself to listen and be taught. You can't have a closed mind in this job.

Lastly, recruitment doesn't happen very often. Keep checking the various websites and Facebook pages for updated info. Go to open days and find out as much as you can. Contact Ms Dawne Stephenson on to find out more.

What do you see when you look in the mirror?

I see someone who has worked hard to be where she is now. I see someone who is incredibly lucky because she loves going to work and is proud to say that she an important job.


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