In 1982 Josephine Reynolds became Norfolk’s first woman firefighter at age 17. At the time, she was one of only two in the whole of Britain, the other having started her training in London in the same month. Josephine became an early pioneer for women breaking into this male-dominated industry and met with me to discuss her trailblazing past.
Having attended a grammar school in Wales Josephine decided not to follow her friends to university as she hated being contained in classrooms. After obtaining the qualifications necessary to hold a job, she moved to Norwich to live with her father. Her first glimpse of firefighter life came in the form of an advert in the Eastern Evening News, entitled “Junior Firefighter wanted”.
The scenes of her Fire Service career will be familiar to many UEA students, as she trained in Wymondham, was posted to Thetford, and completed her interview with the Chief Officer in Hethersett – the latter being only four miles from our own university campus.
I enquire as to whether she ever felt underestimated while being checked for her physical capabilities. She shrugs and says, “to be honest, I didn’t even give it a thought”, then going on to describe the physical tests in which she had to climb ladders and carry a 12-stone dummy.
In her training cohort there were six 17-year-olds, five of which were boys. As there weren’t any gender-specific facilities, Josephine was provided with a curtain behind which to change: “sometimes the boys would be cheeky and open the curtain back to have a peek. I ended up pulling the curtain right back, standing in my bra and pants and saying ‘Now will you eff off’”. She recounts one of the lads telling her that’s when he knew he’d get along with her “no nonsense” attitude in the working environment.
On the first day of her training, Josephine was kitted out in a full men’s uniform as they had not yet made a women’s version. She says it didn’t bother her too much as she was the same height and build as the average fireman, but other women have struggled since with the single-gender uniform, particularly finding gloves that fit them.
Though the instructors and her colleagues accepted her as a firefighter, Josephine details the odd person around the county who didn’t like change. They would say: “oh, you’re just the 17-year-old girl put here for the Chief to look good”. Rather than being the people she worked with on a day-to-day basis, Josephine is firm in believing it was those who didn’t know her who were her biggest critics: “I used to think if you actually knew me and took the time to see, you’d find out in time that I’ll prove myself.”
Josephine chuckles as she remembers some of the amusing incidents which constituted her firefighting career. An older lady called her granddaughter to come and meet the “lovely young fireman” who had just put out her chimney fire – being mistaken for a man was a common occurrence.
In another humorous tale, she tells me that she rescued an escaped monkey from Kilverstone Zoo, only to find out in next week’s paper that the monkey had been renamed ‘Josephine’ after its rescuer!
After her time with the Fire Service ended, she went onto a multi-faceted career, including working as a humanitarian journalist and a television presenter. In April 2017, she published an auto-biographical account called ‘Fire Woman’. Why Fire Woman? Josephine says the paperwork issued by the Fire Service caused some confusion: “One month I’d be ‘Firewoman Josephine Reynolds’, the next I’d be ‘Fireman Woman’ or ‘Woman Fireman’. They never knew what to call me!” Thus, the title of her novel ended up being a tongue-in-cheek jibe at their confusion.
Having spotted a gap in the international community for women firefighters outside of UK, America, and Canada, Josephine started up a ‘Female Firefighters of the World’ group. She does, however, make it clear that she believes it’s important to allow men to enter the group as it is critical for them to understand women’s experiences and help in being allies.
Josephine also drew my attention to the ‘Women in the Fire Service UK’ group which brings together respected women firefighters. They offer the Future Firefighter mentoring courses which she describes as “exactly what you dream of having as a way of getting in the Fire Brigade”.
She shares with me a statistic: it is estimated that only 5% of all firefighters are women, expressing her astonishment in saying “this is 40 years after I started as a firefighter!” She encourages anyone considering a career in the Fire Service to go for it: “They included me as a big family. They’re like brothers and family to me.”
Finally, I ask Josephine to share some parting words of wisdom. She says: “just believe in yourself, no matter what anyone else says to you.” Particularly with the rise of social media, she encourages women to mentally delete and block the unfair criticisms as it is merely a reflection on their own problems.
She would also like to remind everyone that no-one is ever perfect: “it doesn’t matter where you go or what you do, just give yourself a big pat on the back for being there in the first place.”