Peter Barron talks to two women who are breaking down barriers in the traditionally male-dominated world of fire-fighting

THINK of a fire-fighter and what’s the image that comes to mind? A big strong fella, capable of carrying you down a smoke-filled staircase to safety is probably the answer.

But Sarah Nattrass, newly-appointed assistant chief fire officer for County Durham and Darlington, is dispelling that myth.

Meanwhile, at the other end of that ladder, 18-year-old Amy Davison is on the first rung as an apprentice firefighter.

One has proved herself, the other has it all to prove, but both are passionate advocates of women giving the fire and rescue service a go.

Sarah started as a retained firefighter in Stanhope, Weardale, in 1994 and has become one of the country’s most senior female fire-fighters to have come up through the ranks.

“We are still a predominantly white, male service but it’s changing,” says Sarah. “We have to overcome the perception that you have to be a big burly man to be a fire-fighter.”

When Sarah was growing up, her parents ran pubs in Weardale. The Golden Lion, at St John’s Chapel, The Bonny Moor Hen, at Stanhope, and The Campbell Arms, on Crawleyside Bank, were all places she called home.

When she reached 21, the local retained fire service was looking for recruits and pub-goers, who were also retained fire-fighters, kept urging Sarah to “give it a go”. “I decided I had nothing to lose so I applied and got in,” she recalls.

Having enjoyed her taste of being a fire-fighter, Sarah joined Cumbria Fire Service full-time two years later and the ladder has been climbed steadily ever since. From Cumbria, she went to Cleveland, then back to the County Durham and Darlington service and was stationed at Bishop Auckland for five years.

She progressed through the ranks to area manager. At various points she had responsibilities for training, health and safety, organisational development, estates, workforce development, fleet and transport, and human resources.

Now, she is one of two newly-appointed assistant chief fire officers, working under chief fire officer, Stuart Errington, having come through an exhaustive selection procedure.

“I’ve loved the variety and I find it hard to believe that I could have gained such wide experience in any other job,” says Sarah. “It’s what you make of it – you can choose your career path, remaining as an operational fire-fighter or diversify into different roles across the organisation, both of which are very rewarding.”

It hasn’t all been straight-forward, of course. She remembers the time, early on in her stint as a retained fire-fighter, when Stanhope fell was on fire and she was sent back to the appliance alone to fetch a piece of equipment. In full kit, she plunged chest-deep into a bog and had to scramble for her life before returning to her colleagues in a filthy state.

But she wouldn’t swap any of it and is passionate about other women following in her footsteps.

“Those big red doors on a fire station are often perceived as a barrier but behind them are friendly, welcoming, professional people who just want to help the community,” she says. “Whether we are men or women, we work as a team.”

As one of the latest batch of apprentices to be employed by County Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service – five female and five male – Amy Davison is already thriving as part of that team.

Amy, from Seaham, was considering going to university to study optometry but an email sent to Park View Sixth Form College, in Chester-le-Street, changed her plans. It was advertising apprenticeship vacancies in the fire and rescue service and a blue light went on in her head.

As a regular gym-goer, she was attracted by the need to be fit and sent in an application. After passing a rigorous recruitment process, she began a two-year apprenticeship and is now halfway through.

This is National Apprenticeship Week and County Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service will soon be recruiting a new cohort. Amy has no hesitation in recommending it to both sexes as a career path.

“I love it because it really is like a family. Everyone knows each other,” she says. “It’s both mentally and physically challenging and I’ve already learned so much."

There’s a long way to go but Amy has ambitions to climb the ladder, just like Sarah. “I want to go as far as I possibly can,” she says. “Why not give it a go?”

It's a philosophy that applies to every rung of the ladder.