Posted on January 28 2015
This week's Wednesday Woman is the incredible and inspirational Dany Cotton, Assistant Commissioner of the London Fire Brigade. (update: as of 2017, Dany is now Commissioner of the London Fire Brigade - this interview was conducted in January 2015).
Bardega: Assistant Commissioner Cotton, can you tell us a little about your background and what/who inspired you to become a firefighter?
Cotton: Sure, I’ve been an operational firefighter for nearly 27 years now and have gone through the ranks to become an Assistant Commissioner.
When I was 18, I saw an advert in the newspaper - a recruitment campaign for the London Fire Brigade. They were specifically interested in women joining so I thought I’d give it a go however, I was told repeatedly by others that I shouldn’t do it, and that being a firefighter was not a job for a girl. I guess you could call me stubborn or determined, but being told I couldn’t do it only made me want it more.
I have been fortunate enough to work with some great people and have been honoured with several awards over the years but I am most proud of the effect that our line of work has on the community around us. We are here to make London a safe place to live, work and visit and I am very proud to be part of that.
Bardega: What's it like working in a male dominated profession and how do you encourage more women to join?
Cotton: It can be challenging sometimes and every day is different which keeps life interesting and it can be very rewarding - to save a life is the ultimate reward and anyone who has done it will tell you the same. If you put it into perspective, we are the people working our way towards an area of danger while everyone else is running away.
There are many ways in which we try to get more women to join and just as importantly, to progress and seek promotion. I personally try to be a role model when I can and have spoken at a range of public events about the life of a female firefighter. I try to be honest, talking about the tough times, as well as the good times, because if anyone is convinced that firefighting is easy work, they should think again. It is a lot of effort but I truly believe that it is worth it at the end of the day.
I have spoken to school groups and to other industries, sometimes concentrating on leadership skills, communication, teamwork - all skills which are gained when you really engage in this career. I also look to online audiences, and do wide-reaching interviews, on sites such as this one, in order to try and break the stereotypes that exist where people think there could ever be a job that is not for girls.
The London Fire Brigade also engages with support groups for women, and other underrepresented groups, seeking a range of opinions and promoting diversity.
Bardega: What's been your biggest challenge and how did you overcome it?
Cotton: I think the biggest challenge has always been convincing other people that I could do this, that I could stand toe to toe with the men around me and eventually, that I could lead them.
When I joined, there were 6,000 male firefighters in London and only 30 women. That’s not a typo. Thirty among six thousand! Some of them were suspicious, some were downright nasty, but through the support of friends and family and with my stubborn attitude, I hope I managed to change a few minds.
Attitudes have improved greatly over time but there are still a minority of people who don’t agree with women being firefighters. I’d like to think that my achievements, and my ability to develop great working relationships with people, have helped in some way to overcome these attitudes.
Bardega: What do you consider your biggest achievements?
Cotton: I think my biggest achievement is being the first woman to be awarded the Queen’s Fire Service medal. The pride I felt in going to Buckingham Palace with my family was immense.
The other achievement is knowing that I have helped to make London a safer place for people to work, live and visit. We do so much more than just fight fires and there are many (often unseen) parts of our work which goes towards improving the safety of Londoners and the millions of people who visit our great city each year.
There is a certain image that people think of when they envisage a firefighter and we all try to live up to that every day when we pull on our uniform.
If you are interested in learning more about the London Fire Brigade, please check out their website
You can also follow Dany on Twitter
Special thanks to David Archer who was amazing at helping coordinate this interview.