London fire chief tells of sexist abuse over 'firefighters' campaign

Dany Cotton sent hate mail after encouraging use of ‘Firefighter Sam’ instead of ‘Fireman Sam’

The head of the London Fire Brigade has said she was bombarded with abuse and had hate mail sent to her workplace after launching a campaign to encourage people to refer to “firefighters” rather than “firemen”.

Dany Cotton, the first female commissioner of the LFB, said the campaign was about allowing both boys and girls to follow whatever path they wanted, but the backlash she received had made her feel isolated.

“The backlash I’ve had – the vitriol, the spite, the unpleasantness – truly horrified and shocked me. And it showed me we’ve got a long way to go,” she said. “For a little while it made me want to back off and hide in a cave because it was shocking. I had letters of hate written to me at work.”

Speaking at a event entitled “Gender Equality: will it take another 100 years” organised by the Young Women’s Trust, Cotton revealed the sexism she has faced throughout her 30-year career at the LFB.

Asked whether she supported quotas in industries dominated by men, she warned that women promoted during quota periods could suffer because of positive discrimination. “For every single rank promotion I’ve got I have been told, every single time, that I’m going to get the job because I’m the only woman on the panel – even the job I’ve got now. Which is quite bizarre, really,” she said.

Cotton said that she had received abuse after suggesting that Fireman Sam should be renamed Firefighter Sam as part of a campaign to encourage more women to consider a role in the fire brigade. “I have nothing against him. I don’t want to kill him,” she joked. “Secondly, he is not real. He is not a person, he is a cartoon – I just want him to join us and call himself a firefighter ... But by saying that people [were] so full of this craziness that it made me think we have to do this together.”

Cotton, who still heads up a women’s network within the fire brigade, said it was time for women to stop apologising for wanting equality. “We all have a part to play and one of the first things we have to do is stop apologising for it. Stop being sorry for being women. Stop being sorry for wanting fairness, equality and rights. Because it isn’t something we need to apologise about,” she said.

Cotton has 102 fire stations, 4,800 uniformed firefighters and 800 other staff under her command and is responsible for frontline response to emergencies in London.

Last year she spoke publicly about speaking counselling after the Grenfell fire, saying she had been unable to sleep.

Cotton urged the women at the event held at City Hall to “reach out and support” each other.

“Because I felt quite lonely for a while when I started doing that, [...] and people said why aren’t you concentrating on more important matters,” she said.

“But equality is important. It’s about how life should be, not about obtaining it in 100 years, it’s about us doing it now, doing it collectively in small areas working together and standing up for what is right and what should be happening.”


Alexandra Topping

The GuardianTramp

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