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HLN meets… Lynsey McVay, Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service

We caught up with Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service’s first operational principal officer to find out what it’s like working in a stereotypically male-dominated industry.

Written by Rachael Nichol
Published Today

Only 7.5% of women make up our UK’s fire and rescue service and many of us often refer to firefighters as ‘firemen’ without even thinking twice – shocking, right?

Working in a stereotypically male-dominated comes can come with challenges, but Lynsey McVay is not one to back down when things get tough. After initially starting as a firefighter over 20 years ago, Lynsey is the first woman to work her way up the ranks to become Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service’s (TWFRS) first female operational principal officer.

We caught up with Lynsey to learn more about her journey to success and her mission to inspire more women to follow in her footsteps.

 

What made you want to get into the fire service?

My dad and my partner at the time were firefighters, so they inspired me and encouraged me to consider it as a career. I’ve always done a lot of sport, so I’ve always been quite strong and fit. I always knew I wanted to do a physical job, but my initial focus was the police.

However, after rupturing my anterior cruciate ligament when I was 19 years old, I was told, rightly or wrongly, that I wouldn’t be able to get into the police, so that’s when the fire service started to become more appealing and I’ve never looked back. It’s been fantastic; I’ve absolutely loved my career. It’s had ups and downs, but I’ve been very fortunate and wouldn’t change anything.

What does a typical day look like for you? 

It is normally very busy. I get up at 5 am and I’m in the gym between 6am and 7am. As an operational officer, I’m still expected to pass all of the fitness tests. I get a shower at work and then I’m at my desk for around 8 am when I start catching up on emails etc. I oversee Human Resources, ICT, Data and Information, Training, Organisational Development and Health and Safety. My days are usually filled with meetings and catch-ups with those that I directly line manage.

I am also the Chair of a couple of national groups and I sit on the National Executive Committee for a support group called Women in the Fire Service. So, I can also travel around the country to attend meetings too.

A key area of focus for me currently is to look at ways that we can further diversify our workforce and we have recently created a couple of roles within the service to support this work. I am also part of the Executive Rota so, if there is a serious incident, I could be asked to take charge of our operational response. That could include visiting the scene or liaising with our partners at the police, local council and the ambulance service.

How do you feel about being TWFRS’s first female principal officer?

TWFRS have had female principal officers in the past, but they’ve been non-operational. I’m the first that came through the traditional route of firefighter up to the principal officer level. I know that I’ve achieved what I have on merit. I have worked hard, haven’t had any preferential treatment and I’ve made many sacrifices on the way.

But I am fully aware that I’m in a privileged position where I can act as a role model to other women or other minority firefighters and I hope that I fulfil this role well.

Recruitment for firefighters in Tyne and Wear is currently open and we’ll have a series of recruitment windows in the coming years. To think that I could help inspire another woman to join the service and help keep communities safe gives me an enormous sense of pride.

What do you love the most about your job?

For me, it’s that camaraderie, it’s teamwork and working out in the communities.

Every day is different. When you’re out at a fire station and attending incidents, you’re ultimately helping members of the public in their darkest hour. And it’s the personal satisfaction that you get from it that is immeasurable; you can’t even describe it.

We work so closely with the other blue light services and together ultimately save people’s lives. That’s what it’s about. But I think that within my role now, although I still attend incidents, it’s not as often, so the part I love most about my job now is being in a position whereby I can directly influence the future of the service and being able to provide help, advice and support to other operational female firefighters who are aspiring to progress.

What’s your biggest achievement in your career?

Being appointed as the first female operational Assistant Chief Fire Officer within TWFRS which hopefully encourages other women and members of minority groups to believe that no position within the fire and rescue service is out of reach. I firmly believe that ‘if you can see it, you can be it’.

 

 

Many people often refer to firefighters as ‘firemen’. How does it feel to be a woman in a stereotypically male-dominated industry?

Being a minority isn’t always comfortable, but you’ve just got to keep going and know that better times will come and that’s always been the case. Throughout my career, I’ve experienced some pushbacks I’ve experienced some comments, both from the public and from individuals I’ve worked with, specifically in relation to my gender. But you’ve just got to persevere and demonstrate that women can do the role and hopefully, that’s what I’ve done.

Comments from members of the public demonstrate to me that we still have work to do, but I do believe that it directly links to societal, cultural and generational perceived ‘norms’. I’ve been in charge of incidents where other agencies or members of the public haven’t been speaking to me, they’ve been speaking to the male firefighter who is standing beside me because I think they just don’t see a female being in charge. But hopefully, things are changing.

After being a fighter for over 20 years, we bet you’ve seen traumatic scenes – how do you switch off?

I’ve always worked on the basis that we are there to help. No incident that we attend is caused by us. We are sometimes people’s last hope. As a crew member, you always come away from incidents and analyse what you’ve done, regardless of whether the outcome was positive or negative, there’s something to learn every time.

It can be difficult at times, but I can always consolidate things in my own mind, as I know that the team around me and I will always have done everything we can to ensure a positive outcome.

What would you say to any women who are interested in becoming firefighters?

Go for it! We want the best people for the role. The only barriers to people applying and becoming successful are in their own minds. There won’t be any barriers within TWFRS and some of the most competent firefighters I have met have been women.

We need different minds, different faces and different experiences to be able to serve the diverse communities we have here. But we will not compromise on standards.

It’s a physically demanding job, but it’s nothing that a woman can’t do and you will receive nothing but support from the rest of the organisation and me. This isn’t like any other job. There’s a sense of purpose and community in being a firefighter. There are opportunities for progression and huge job satisfaction.

 

 

If you are feeling inspired to join the TWFRS, visit their website.

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