There were national headlines in February when a woman became Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. Cressida Dick’s appointment prompted both celebration and censure. Her role running the police operation which killed the innocent Jean Charles de Menezes after the 7/7 bombings in 2005 was quickly raised by critics. Others saw her promotion as another long-awaited step towards gender equality. A woman gaining the highest position in a male-dominated field always deserves recognition.
Strange then that we hardly noticed a month earlier when a similar thing happened at the London Fire Brigade. While many of us were waking bleary-eyed on New Year’s Day, Dany Cotton (left) was taking her place as the new boss of the London Fire Brigade.
She’s the first female to win the top job in a calling that’s famously physical, fiery and full of testosterone. Unlike Dick, she also comes without a black mark in her book. Ironic for a woman regularly covered in black marks, soot and smoke.
The Bright Spark of the London Brigade
Dany Cotton has been in the Brigade since she was 18. That was back in 1988, when the Fire Brigade was still very much a man’s world. There were just 30 women in a force of 6000, despite women having almost run the joint during the War. By 1943 some 70,000 women had joined up but after the War they were told that women could no longer be firefighters.
When Cotton joined Wimbledon station three of her male colleagues filed for a transfer and the boss told her he didn’t want her there. It’s a bad sign when fire isn’t the most unpleasant thing you have to fight at work. She proved them all wrong: her boss became her advocate and all three men changed their minds. Since then she’s been climbing ladders outside buildings and inside the Brigade.
Cotton’s official title is “Interim Commissioner” pending a restructure of the Brigade’s oversight later this year but nobody has any doubts that she will then stay on as plain old “Commissioner”.
This isn’t the first trail she has blazed. Cotton was the first woman to achieve many of the Brigade’s accolades such as the Queen’s Fire Service Medal. She’s also used to being the highest ranking woman, which has happened with almost every promotion. She was named Outstanding Public Servant of the Year in 2002.
What She Means For London
With macho-machines MI6 and the Met still trying to open their doors and demographics, Cotton’s inclusivity policies are ahead of the curve. Her key proposals include making the LFB much more inclusive and becoming a greater part of the communities it protects. Her own appointment will obviously be a beacon guiding others to the Brigade.
It isn’t just the ultra-male image that stops people joining the London Fire Brigade though. Even the everyday jargon is biased toward men. Cotton cites the commonly used “fireman” as a problem. The term firefighter is broader, doesn’t presume gender and let’s face it, sounds so much cooler. “Firefighter Sam” would be a simple step forward.
On top of all this, Cotton clearly loves the capital she serves. She’s given 29 years to London and has put her life on the line for it time and again but she’s only just beginning. As Commissioner she wants the London Fire Brigade to maintain its stellar response times and focus more on specific threats like flooding and terrorism.
Fighting Fire, Chauvinism and Hoarders
Not all Cotton’s causes are scary and eye-catching. One of the simplest is encouraging people to get a smoke alarm. Her force will fit one for free, so all you have to do is ask. She would also like people to stop hoarding: it increases the risk of fire, helps it spread and can make getting into a building a nightmare for her teams. If ever you needed a reason for a spring clean out, that is it.
With all the pressure and pomp of her new role you’d think Dany Cotton’s days of actually attending fires would be over – not so. She still goes out and fights with the teams she leads. She’s a hands-on, humble leader who hopes to continue being a role model. She might not have grabbed headlines but she’s certainly earned them.