One of our ten Future Shapers of 2019, the 36-year-old's research into firefighters’ safety has landed her ten international science awards. Her book, The Heat Of The Moment: Life And Death Decision-Making From A Firefighter, is out now
Being brave doesn’t mean not being afraid. It means doing something despite being afraid. When I was 15, I was homeless after my father died and family communications broke down. I sold the Big Issue and slept rough, then at 18, I joined the fire service. Now I’m a Big Issue ambassador, helping to give people on the fringes of society a voice. Because I’d spent so long trying to hide the fact I’d been homeless, the thought of speaking about it publicly made me nervous, but your circumstances don’t define you. I’ve been overwhelmed by the response from other women in similar situations, saying they now have hope.
The worst experiences shape you in incredible ways. A few years into my career, I responded to an incident in which my husband – also a firefighter – was nearly killed. It was the most difficult experience because I was torn between the role of a loved one and the role of a responder. He was fine, but our colleague was badly burned. In order to cope, I studied ways of reducing human error to make firefighters safer, studying all the way to PhD while working. Our research – exploring how brains work under pressure – changed national policy and was adopted by all UK emergency services.
My goal is to challenge stereotypes. This industry is just five per cent women, and I want the role of a firefighter to appeal to more of us. This isn’t because I believe in arbitrary quotas, but because being a firefighter is hard and we need the very best. Being different freed me from the constraints of a stereotype, allowing me to not only push the boundaries but also to create my own and make a real impact.