Sabrina Cohen-Hatton | London, UK
Positive Role Model (Gender)
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 having their worst ever day to help them. I know how it felt to experience your worst ever day. Living on the streets, I'd experienced more than two years of every day feeling like your worst. In a way, I wanted to rescue others in a way no-one was able to rescue me.
I have since risen to be one of the most senior women firefighters in the UK. During that time, I responded to a pivotal incident where my husband (also a firefighter)was nearly killed at a fire. Although he was fine, our college was badly burned. I was overcome with a sense of guilt because I'd felt so relieved it wasn't my partner, that 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, spent 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 recently published a book, The Heat of the Moment, taking everything I've learned from the frontline of firefighting and a decade or research about life and death decisions to help people to understand themselves more, and also to 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.
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.
I found my past homelessness really difficult to talk about, but I shared it in the book. I wanted the thousands of people who are in the same situation today as I was back then 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 been appointed as 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.