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Challenging culture in the fire service with Dany Cotton

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Former London Fire Brigade Commissioner Dany Cotton discusses culture within the UK fire and rescue service

Dany Cotton’s name is synonymous with groundbreaking leadership in the fire service sector. Her tenure as the first female Commissioner of the London Fire Brigade symbolises more than just a title; it’s a testament to her relentless commitment to driving change.

Today, as the UK fire service stands at the crossroads of introspection with multiple culture reviews shedding light on its inner workings, Cotton’s insights are more invaluable than ever.

In this exclusive, candid interview, she speaks about her journey, the challenges faced by the service, and her hopes for a more inclusive and understanding future.

Could you tell us about your journey to becoming London’s first female Commissioner?

When I joined the London Fire Brigade at 18, I didn’t fully grasp what being a firefighter meant. I was drawn by an advert in my local paper highlighting teamwork, practical skills, and helping people. Many discouraged me, saying it wasn’t a job for girls. But telling me not to do something only fuels my determination, so I went for it.

At my first station, I was surprised by the hostility and suspicion I faced. Some transferred out, not wanting to work with a woman, while others bizarrely thought I was a spy. However, the job captivated me from the start—each callout unpredictable and an opportunity to help people during their worst moments.

The realisation that I could quite literally save lives became my driving force. Knowing there are people alive today due to my direct intervention is an unparalleled feeling.

I deeply loved being a firefighter, and aiming for promotions wasn’t originally on my agenda. I’ve never charted out a detailed career path. Every rank I ascended had its unique motivator, whether it was spotting a new opportunity or seeking change from my current role.

Leading a watch and managing a fire station were highlights for me, offering direct influence over my team’s training, progression, and daily challenges.

As I ascended through the ranks my primary motivation was to enhance the service and support firefighters. Becoming a principal officer presented me with the chance to create positive change.

The Commissioner role wasn’t initially on my radar, primarily because I’ve never been interested in the politics inherent in leading an organisation. Yet, I recognised it as an unparalleled opportunity to enact the changes I’d long aspired to.

During my interview for the Commissioner’s position, I emphasised my vision for a more people-centric London Fire Brigade, focusing on both our staff’s sense of inclusion and our service to the London community.

My approach was distinct, focusing more on genuine care and passion than on politics. This approach, however, was seen by some as my downfall. I’ve been told that the London Fire Brigade wasn’t ready for a female Commissioner with such a different perspective.

But I’ve always believed that when you treat people well—respecting, supporting, and looking out for them—they naturally want to excel in their roles. They become more committed, eager to be an integral part of the team and the London Fire Brigade family. That was my driving ethos.

How has culture in the fire service changed during your career?

When I first entered the fire service, the culture was straightforward and transparent. If someone believed women shouldn’t be firefighters, they said it directly to your face.

In my early days, I had colleagues openly tell me women didn’t belong in this field. That’s not to downplay all the wonderful individuals I also worked alongside; many were supportive, but a significant number were hostile to the idea of collaborating with women, questioning our capabilities.

The dynamics within the fire service have transformed, although it’s an evolution rather than a complete overhaul. While blatant prejudices have receded, some negative behaviours have become subtler and shifted to covert channels, especially with the rise of social media. People are now able to hide behind online personas, making disparaging comments they wouldn’t vocalise face-to-face.

On a positive note, I’ve encountered numerous women firefighters who’ve served a decade or so and have faced no major hurdles, enjoying rewarding careers. That’s heartening to see.

I once encountered a female firefighter in London whom I didn’t recognise. There was a period when the few female firefighters knew each other due to our limited numbers.

Were you surprised by the findings of the recent culture reviews?

My initial reaction to the findings was not surprise but profound disappointment and sadness. Learning firsthand about the distressing experiences people went through was deeply unsettling.

Throughout my career, I’ve ardently pushed for change, drawing from my own lived experiences. Yet, facing resistance from those, even at higher levels, who didn’t perceive a need for change simply because it didn’t impact them directly, was a constant challenge.

When you don’t fit the mould of the majority, your differences become focal points for some to target. Ultimately, any deviation from what is perceived as “the norm” can, unfortunately, make someone a target.

I’ve witnessed derogatory comments or jokes about the LGBTQ+ community during work interactions. I often remind people that they don’t know everyone’s background or personal story in that room. What might seem like a harmless joke to one can deeply affect another. Dismissing concerns by labelling someone as lacking a sense of humour is a deflection.

Do you think that people are hesitant to speak out?

There’s a significant reluctance within the fire service for individuals to voice concerns. Historically, the issue has been the punitive approach toward those who do speak out. Rather than seeing them as brave individuals highlighting concerns, they’re often stigmatised as troublemakers. This reputation follows them, overshadowing their genuine grievances and making them targets for further marginalisation.

To combat this, the introduction of whistleblowing mechanisms is a step in the right direction – but we must shift the onus from the victim.

Those who witness inappropriate behaviour should actively challenge and report it, providing a collective responsibility and a safer environment for concerns to be raised. The burden shouldn’t solely lie on the aggrieved party.

It’s imperative that workplaces prioritise inclusivity, allowing individuals to feel comfortable being themselves. Especially for newcomers, the onus should not be on them to adapt and conform but on the organisation to foster an accepting and inclusive culture.

In your opinion, what are the most critical steps that fire and rescue services should take to address the concerns?

Firstly, it’s crucial for fire and rescue services to genuinely recognise and accept that there is an issue. This isn’t an indictment on the entire force, but rather a recognition that there are problematic elements that need addressing. I find it disheartening when senior officers claim that no issues exist. Such denial isn’t constructive.

Senior leadership must understand that they cannot have complete knowledge of everything happening within their organisation. If issues are brought forward, the appropriate response is to acknowledge them, express the intent to address them, and commit to thorough investigations.

Fire and rescue services should be proactive and seek to identify if similar problems exist within their ranks. Given that multiple services, including London, have been flagged, it’s likely that such issues are happening everywhere.

The way forward is to actively engage with staff, fostering an environment where they feel safe to express concerns. This can be followed by comprehensive training and development initiatives aimed at raising awareness.

Sometimes, inappropriate behaviours stem from ignorance, fear, or a lack of understanding. Proper training can help dispel misconceptions, leading to a more informed and empathetic workforce.

Individual accountability plays a pivotal role in promoting positive change. Mistakes happen, but it’s the repeated offences, especially after being informed it indicates deliberate malice. Within the fire service, it’s essential for members to not only acknowledge errors but also proactively seek to rectify them.

There’s a collective responsibility for ensuring a healthy work environment. This means equipping managers with the necessary tools and training to foster positive interactions. But it’s not just on the leaders.

From the newest firefighter to the highest-ranking officer, everyone must be vigilant and competent enough to recognise and address inappropriate behaviour. It’s a shared duty, ensuring that everyone feels safe and respected in their workplace.

Are you optimistic about the future culture of the UK fire service?

I am hopeful for the future of the UK Fire Service. My experience spanning over three decades has been overwhelmingly positive. It’s a remarkable institution, offering unparalleled experiences, and I’d wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone, including young women.

However, it’s essential that those considering joining are well-informed about its current challenges. Awareness and preparation can help new entrants navigate potential obstacles more effectively.

For all newcomers, it’s imperative they’re made aware of the robust support structures in place. Assigning a trusted individual to each recruit can provide them with a safe space to discuss any concerns. Everyone deserves to feel secure and understood in their place of work.

Support for underrepresented groups is crucial, and they should be promptly connected with the available networks designed to assist them. While we’ve made progress, there’s still a significant journey ahead.

The ongoing discussions and scrutiny on this issue mean fire services are now actively held accountable and driven to take necessary action. I’m optimistic about what lies ahead.

However, it’s essential that we maintain this momentum. We cannot let this issue become another fleeting headline that loses traction only to resurface years later.

Reflecting on your career, what would be your message or advice for members the fire service?

Embrace the role you have in the fire service; it’s an incredible platform to make a tangible difference in people’s lives. Whether it’s through community engagement, educating individuals, installing smoke alarms, or responding to emergencies, each day offers a chance to turn someone’s worst day into something a bit more bearable.

Moreover, always remain eager to learn and adapt. Never become complacent, as the nature of the risks we face evolves. Over my 30-year tenure, I’ve witnessed significant changes in the challenges we confront, like the recent growing hazard of electric scooters. It underscores the importance of staying informed and prepared for the ever-shifting landscape of our profession.

Being a firefighter goes beyond just responding to emergencies; it’s about continuous growth, understanding the evolving community you serve, and maintaining a sense of humility.

Always wear your uniform with immense pride, knowing you are part of a remarkable organisation. Moreover, recognise the profound impact you can have on someone’s day, whether it’s a colleague or a member of the community. Simple acts, like checking in on someone’s well-being, can make all the difference.

In today’s world, a small gesture of kindness can change someone’s day for the better. On the other hand, a thoughtless act can adversely affect someone.

As firefighters, we have a significant role in uplifting and caring for one another. Never underestimate the power of kindness and the responsibility we hold in supporting and looking after each other.

This article was originally published in the October 2023 issue of International Fire & Safety Journal. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

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