Sian Griffiths. Photo © Jess Hurd/reportdigital.co.uk
Celebrating 30 years of Women in the Fire Service
This year we celebrate 30 years of women in the fire service. It is also time to say farewell to Paddington, London, White Watch manager Sian Griffiths, who is retiring after 30 years.
One of the first generation of women to enter London Fire Brigade, she blazed a trail for women. Awarded the Queen’s Fire Service Medal for Distinguished Service, she was the inspiration for the female fire fighter Sally in the TV drama London’s Burning.
With Jason N. Parkinson we asked Sian about her life in the Brigade.
© Jess Hurd/Jason N. Parkinson/reportdigital.co.uk
“When I joined as a woman firefighter there were five women, there are 333 now. I would have liked to seen a lot more women in the fire service after 30 years. It is still very much a male dominated job, so there is still work to be done.
“At training school there were 11 women and what seemed like hundreds of men. I had one other woman in my squad and she lasted three weeks. You just had to keep going, dig in and be resilient. I had to prove, especially to the men, that I could do it. Not only be as good as them but sometimes a bit better.
“I passed out on 4 July 1985, then the next day we were all dropped at our stations. When we got to Euston the men were hanging out the window shouting ‘where’s the women’, not in a very nice way. I thought, my god, what have I let myself in for. But when we arrived at Manchester Square they were all very polite, reasonable people.
“But there were still people that would not talk to me at other stations, people that would like to see me struggle. As a Leading Hand I went to Charlie 28 which was Islington at the time. There was a lot of hostility there. Initially they would get up and walk out the room when I went in, not talk to me around the mess table, be difficult on the fire engines, especially if I was in charge, to get them to do things.
“I was only two years in when Kings Cross happened, in November 1987. At that time we were wearing plastic leggings, wool tunics and cork helmets. It was very basic. There was a small fire reported on the Tube, which became a huge fire. Basically it flashed over, it got really hot and exploded. Over 30 people were killed that night, including one firefighter, Colin Townsley from Soho.
“As we arrived all I remember was the smoke coming out of every orifice at Kings Cross. As I was about to descend down into the stairway, they were bringing somebody out. They came out of the smoke with somebody, they were carrying him. Then I realised that that somebody was firefighter, because they had tunic on. And then I recognised him. And then we went in on the back of that.
“It became very real the job that we do and what can happen.
“I like the fact that I did try to do the right thing for women, that I represented women, that I did stand my ground. People might not have always agreed with me and sometimes I am seen as a thorn in their side, but hopefully they understand why I have done these things. Because I think it is really important that if we had a normal workplace there would be less abnormal behaviours. And I think people will be more respectful of each other and that would provide an even better service to the members of the public.
“The Fire Authority will argue that cuts are not going to affect safety. Of course its going to affect safety, because if the neighbouring station is no longer there and we are busy at another incident, who’s going to attend?
“People that once were held up as public heroes and something to aspire to are now going to be put on the scrap heap and not be able to get their pensions. They have been paying into it for 40 years and yet when they are nearly there and they are really used up, physically exhausted and damaged, they are not entitled to it. I think its a really really poor way to treat anybody.
“The people that are in charge of us, namely those people that have never worked for the fire service seem to treat us with complete contempt. And I do not think it is getting better, it is getting worse.
“That is why it is so important to have a union. If we do not have them as a buffer between the employers, we would be really undermined and our conditions of service and our pay would really be worse than they are now. Its right to fight for that. Everybody should fight that. It should not be a battle to the lowest common denominator, we should aspire higher than that.”