Helen Lawlor Watch Manager Staffordshire Fire and Rescue Service
What did you do once you finished sixth form?
Originally I had a place to do French Tourism at Oxford Polytechnic, which is what it was then, but then I took the summer out to go and work in the Lake District to earn some money. It was there that I got speaking to people and started to get distracted - I thought I’d learn the language and culture better by travelling rather than going to university. So, I started off in France, and went over to Switzerland, Germany, Greece, America, and then ended up back in France again.
How did you become a firefighter?
After I came back from working abroad, I worked in a pub as an assistant manager for about three years. Whilst I was there, I saw an advert in the local paper for firefighters. It’s not something I had ever considered before or even looked at. So I applied, and at first I didn’t get in, but I did get a phone call asking if I was interested in being a retained firefighter. I continued with my normal employment in the pub and then was a retained firefighter in between shifts. Two years later, I got the opportunity to apply again and that time I was successful. For the first ten years of my career in the fire services, I was a firefighter, and then I took the opportunity to move onto crew manager. I stayed in that role for eighteen months and then I went onto watch manager, which I’ve been doing for three years now.
It sounds quite selective if you want to become a firefighter, how does the selection process work?
First of all, there’s a fitness test, which used to be a shuttle run. Next, you had a strength test where you had to be able to lift a certain amount. They had to make sure that you weren’t claustrophobic, so you had a set-up where you crawled through a really tight and dark space. There was a ladder climb as well, to check that you’re comfortable climbing a ladder and you haven’t got any vertigo issues. Apart from the physical side of things, there was a Maths and English test. If you managed to get through all those stages, then you got to an interview, which was usually with a panel of interviewers, and at the time I think there were three people on the panel.
As watch manager, what are your main responsibilities on a weekly basis?
I’ll be in charge of the watch, so between five and seven people, and it’s mainly making sure everything’s operationally ready. So making sure the fire engines are ready to go, daily routines have been performed on the fire engines, and all the daily checks are done. I’ll also ensure the correct crew is in place, because often they all have different skills, like drivers or breathing apparatus wearers. Training is another thing, so everyone has to be up-to-date with training and has to have the correct training for our local risks. There’s quite a bit of paperwork involved but from the operational side of things, if you get called out you’re in charge of an incident. Potentially, the watch manager can be in charge of four fire engines in one incident, from a fire to road traffic accidents, animal rescue, children locked in cars, all sorts of things! So your day is varied all of the time, depending on what gets thrown at you.
What challenges have you faced throughout your career?
The main ones for myself have been the personal challenges and, obviously, the environmental ones, because the fire services do have quite a strong male environment. Personally, it was managing from the start to integrate into quite a set culture and a set way of things, and this was a challenge. I think along the way I felt like I had betrayed my personality for the first couple of years, because I wanted so much to fit in. I lost track of what I wanted to do and what I was driven by, I was too worried about trying to fit in with that environment. Going out as watch manager to incidents, people automatically expect the authority figure to be male, and will go and speak to one of the boys - even though you’ve got a helmet or a jacket differentiating you to everybody else. It’s been great to break that stereotype. It’s quite easy, because of this culture, to get stuck in a rut and not progress. But now I’ve come to terms with it, I’ve stopped worrying so much about what people think or say and I worry more about what I want to get out of my career.
As you mentioned, the fire services is very male-orientated, and a lot of women might look at this and be too daunted to apply. Why would you recommend that young women should go into the fire services?
It’s an absolutely fantastic career. You’ve got amazing career prospects within the fire services because it's so diverse in so many different areas. It is a challenge, especially physically as you do have to be really physically fit to be a firefighter, and a lot of women are concerned about upper body fitness. You do have to work hard at staying fit and having that upper body strength. But it’s just such a rewarding job - you never know what your day is going to bring. The watch might still be quite male-dominated, but it has such a family atmosphere and everybody looks out for each other. I would definitely, definitely encourage anybody to go for it - it’s a real challenge and you get an awful lot out of it.
Do you consider yourself a feminist?
That’s a really interesting question because I had never considered myself a feminist, despite being called a feminist because I’m in a male-dominated workplace. There are elements of the fire services where there is a real strong union, and there is a women’s part of the union. So whenever I was involved with any of that - it’s a such a good support network - I was called a feminist because I was going along to a woman’s union school. I didn’t think I was a feminist, but then I read a book a little while ago - I can’t remember what it was called now - but it basically said that every woman that stands up with confidence to do what she wants to do is a feminist and it’s not anything to be ashamed of! I think the definition has gotten lost along the way. So I will say yes, I am a feminist. And I’m proud to be a feminist because I’ll stand up for what I want and I’ll stand up for what other women want.
Definitely. So final question – what is the one piece of advice that you’ve picked up over your professional life that can apply to any career and you would like to pass on?
Be confident in yourself, I think that’s the thing. There are a lot of barriers that everybody else can put in your way, but you’ve got to be confident in yourself and not worry about what other people think. To put it into a nutshell: be yourself, be true to yourself and believe in yourself.
What did we learn from Helen?
Sometimes you learn more from experiencing something rather than studying it, which is what happened to Helen when she decided that spending time in France would be more valuable than studying French Tourism at university
Applying to be a firefighter isn't easy - you have multiple physical and mental exams, as well as an interview stage in front of a panel of people...
...But never give up - the first time Helen applied to be a firefighter, she didn't get in and worked as a retained firefighter instead. Upon applying a second time, she succeeded
The watch manager's job is to oversee the firefighters in their watch, and as a part of this has to make sure all equipment is ready and incidents are taken care of quickly
Although it's a very male-dominated career path, Helen couldn't recommend it enough for young women - there's a strong sense of comradery and as far as career paths go, it's a rewarding one
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"Going out as watch manager to incidents, people automatically expect the authority figure to be male, and will go and speak to one of the boys - even though you’ve got a helmet or a jacket differentiating you to everybody else."
After seeing an advert in the local paper, Helen Lawlor decided to become a firefighter. Now watch manager, she talks to us about the challenges and perks of a career in the fire services
Assistant manager in a pub
"The watch manager can be in charge of four fire engines in one incident, from a fire to road traffic accidents, animal rescue, children locked in cars, all sorts of things! Your day is varied all of the time"