Sabrina Rachel Cohen-Hatton is a British firefighter, psychologist and writer.
She is the Chief Fire Officer of the West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service. In 2019 she was selected as one of Marie Claire’s Future Shapers and featured on Desert Island Discs.
Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role
I’ve been a firefighter since I was eighteen years old. I’m now a Chief Fire Officer and one of the most senior female firefighters in the UK. After leaving home at fifteen and school at sixteen, I joined the fire service in Wales. While climbing the ranks, I studied at the Open University and then at Cardiff University, eventually completing a PhD in Psychology. I’m incredibly humbled that my subsequent research into incident command in the emergency services has not only won awards but has also influenced policy at a global level. I was recently conferred as an Honorary Fellow at Cardiff University, and authored The Heat of the Moment. Having experienced homelessness from the age of 15, I’m also a Big Issue Ambassador, campaigning to end poverty.
Did you ever sit down and plan your career?
I have always had an outcome in mind, and looked at the various ways to achieve that outcome. I think sometimes if you are too prescriptive about the route then you can miss out on a way to get to the destination.
Have you faced any challenges along the way?
Throughout my career, I’ve campaigned to challenge the stereotype of a firefighter. This was hard. There are only 5% women in my industry, and more Chief Fire Officers called Chris than women Chiefs. I want the role of a firefighter to appeal to more women, not because I believe in an arbitrary quota, but because being a firefighter is hard. We need the best of the best. We’re trusted by people when they’ve experienced their most extreme trauma. The skills you need to do this are not determined by gender. You need to be good under pressure, calm and decisive. Right now we’re only attracting the best of the best to whom the stereotype appeals, and we need to widen that pool. I’ve used my platform to raise the profile of this issue, and to encourage the next generation of firefighters to come from all backgrounds.
What has been your biggest achievement to date?
- Some key awards that I’m proud of are:
I’ve received 10 international science awards for my research to date, from institutions like the American Psychological Association and the Bioscience and Biotechnology Research Council, to name but a few.
- I was also awarded the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Medallion by HM the Queen in recognition of research carried out investigating violence against firefighters
- Being conferred as an Honorary Fellow at Cardiff University. Other Honorary Fellows include the likes of Stephen Fry, who is one of my heros!
Although I think my biggest achievement has been developing techniques designed to make firefighters safer, and introducing them UK wide.
What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?
Never giving up! Ever!
How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?
I mentor several people, and my only criteria is that if I mentor you, you need to mentor someone else. I believe very strongly in paying it forward.
If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Parity, what would it be?
Breaking down the unhelpful stereotypes that limit our aspirations because we think we don’t ‘fit’. This is as much for men as for women, and I think we have much more work to do with gender stereptypes in a domestic setting so we can truly ‘share the load’.
If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?
You’re right not to listen to the rules. Keep going!
Tell us what inspired you on your career path?
When I was 15, I was homeless. I sold the Big Issue and slept rough until the age of 18 when I joined the fire service. I know that being a firefighter is a privilege. We’re trusted by people on their very worst ever days. Living on the streets, I experienced many bad days and this was the reason I joined the fire and rescue service. In a way, I wanted to rescue others because no-one was able to rescue me. I have since risen to be one of the most senior women firefighters in the UK.
I have found my past homelessness really difficult to talk about, and in fact only shared it recently when I published my book, The Heat of the Moment. I wanted the thousands of people who are in the same situation to know that your circumstances don’t define you. They don’t determine where you end up, only where you start from. I was so scared of doing this because I’d spent so long hiding it. But I believe that being brave doesn’t mean not being afraid of something, it means doing something despite being afraid. And I’m proud to say that I’ve now become a Big Issue Ambassador, helping to give people on the fringes of society – as I once was – a voice, and challenging preconceptions of those experiencing poverty. I want to inspire more people to reach their potential, whatever their circumstances.
I completely underestimated the impact of publicly speaking about my experiences. I was overwhelmed by the response from other people who were either in the same position now, or who had previously experienced similar circumstances. I found it incredibly emotional to hear stories of other young women and girls and for them to get in touch to say they now had hope.
Is there a particular life-changing event, moment or person that shaped your career. Tell us about it?
A few years into my career, I responded to a pivotal incident in which my husband (also a firefighter) was nearly killed at a fire. It was the most difficult experience of my life, as I was torn between the role of a loved one and the role of a responder. Although he was fine, our college was badly burned. I was overcome with a sense of guilt because I’d felt so relieved. In order to cope, I studied ways of reducing human error to keep firefighters safer. Given my background, further education had not previously been a luxury I could afford. So I studied, part-time, while working, all the way to PhD. I would go into the lab at 0530, run experiments until 0830 then go and work a full shift. Then I’d come home, spend time with my daughter, then go back to the lab again until the early hours of the morning. I was determined to find ways to improve the safety of my colleagues and to prevent anyone else experiencing the horrors of an injury.
I now co-supervise a small research team at Cardiff University exploring the neuroscience of how your brain works under pressure, in addition to my operational firefighting role. Our research changed the national policy (National Operational Guidance) to make all firefighters safer, and has also been adopted by all emergency services in the UK though our joint doctrine for dealing with emergencies (JESIP). We’ve received no less than 10 international science awards to date, from institutions like the American Psychological Association and the Bioscience and Biotechnology Research Council, to name but a few.
I wrote a book that took everything I’ve learned from the frontline of firefighting and a decade of research into life and death decisions to help people understand the human side of firefighting and not just the superhuman façade. I wanted people to see that we are subject to the same fears and fallibilities as anyone we rescue – we’re all human and wired the same way.
What does a typical day look like for you and what is your main underlying goal /what do you hope to achieve?
A typical day for me is usually long! I tend to be an early bird so like to be up and out of bed before the sun comes up. I’m usually up by 5 o clock and I’ll train at least 3 days a week – either HIIT training or weights. I’m almost always at my desk by 7.30, but once a week I do the school run. It’s important to me to find balance and a moment to walk my daughter to school, just talking about the day ahead.
Nowadays, my days are normally filled with chairing meetings. I’m the national lead for command and control, so have a number of activities associated with this as well. Operational training is also very important to me, and I will take every opportunity I can to participate in exercises.
When I get home, I spend as much time as I can with my daughter, Gabriella, and husband, Mike. Often, we’ll take our little bald dog – Jimmy Chew – out for long walks (he’s a Mexican hairless – Mike has a severe allergy and it took us about 12 years to find a dog he could tolerate!). Mike’s a Watch Manager so works on shifts on a fire station. We share the domestic duties – and to be fair, because of his shifts, he does the most out of the two of us. He usually does the cooking so I can carve out more family time as my working days are long. When it’s time for Gabby to go to bed, I’ll usually snuggle up with her and we’ll both read for a while. Once she’s soundly tucked up, I’m usually back on the laptop, either writing or doing research work.
I have a few underlying goals. The most salient one is to try and keep people safe – both those in need of rescue and firefighters. I know how it feels to be vulnerable, and being in the Service gives me an opportunity to help other people in the same space. It’s a privilege.
The second goal is to really challenge stereotypes. I think it can be incredibly limiting to try and fit into a box. There are only 5% women in my industry, and more Chief Fire Officers called Chris than women Chiefs. I want the role of a firefighter to appeal to more women, not because I believe in an arbitrary quota, but because being a firefighter is hard. We need the best of the best. We’re trusted by people when they’ve experienced their most extreme trauma. The skills you need to do this are not determined by gender. You need to be good under pressure, calm and decisive. Right now we’re only attracting the best of the best to whom the stereotype appeals, and we need to widen that pool. I’ve used my platform to raise the profile of this issue, and to encourage the next generation of firefighters to come from all backgrounds.
In relation to my work in science, I proudly champion the contribution of women in STEM careers and have been recognised by the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI – the largest UK government research council) as a role model for women in STEM. My work has revolutionised the way we deal with emergencies in the fire service and keeps both firefighters and the public safer. I argue that being different frees me from the constraints of a stereotype. It allows me to not only push the boundaries, but to create my own boundaries, and combine science and firefighting to make a real impact on my industry.
Can you give us 3 specific tips or values that you live by which we can pass on to our readers and other women?
- Always be completely, wholeheartedly and unapologetically you. When you’re in a group environment and you’re in some way ‘different’, it’s only human to try to adapt in order to fit in. Which is why in many male-dominated environments, successful women unconsciously try to emulate male traits. Although it’s completely normal, it’s often counterproductive. Once you feel like you fit, it’s common to turn down new opportunities – like a promotion – because you’ve spent so long adapting your behaviour to fit into that group and you don’t want to draw attention to yourself or start again. And, more than anything, it means compromising who you really are. So always be completely, wholeheartedly and unapologetically you.
- Being brave doesn’t mean you’re not afraid of something. Being brave means doing something despite being afraid. I’m afraid of lots of things…but I do them anyway.
- Whatever happens, the world still turns and the sun still rises. Tomorrow is another day. Pick yourself up, dust yourself down and carry on.