Women in the fire service: An interview with Samantha Samuels

This International Women’s Day, we explore the experiences and perspectives of women shaping the landscape of fire and rescue services today. In this interview, we speak to Samantha Samuels, a trailblazer whose journey demonstrates resilience, leadership, and dedication to the fire sector.

Through her role as Group Manager at West Midlands Fire Service, Samantha embodies this year’s theme of ‘Inspire Inclusion’ by championing visibility and advocacy within her organisation. We asked Samantha about her experiences being a woman working in the fire and rescue service.

What does International Women’s Day mean to you? And why do you feel it is important that we celebrate it?

International Women’s Day is an opportunity to focus on the contributions of women, those trailblazers and those allies that stand up to make a difference, but also who highlight the ongoing barriers faced by women, in the workplace, and in society.

Recognition is sometimes seen as unnecessary, because no one does things, for ‘recognition’. But, there are so many women who are living ‘the struggle’ and are not only succeeding but are exceptional. Recognition can be that one thing that can recharge a near empty battery. In fact, International Women’s Day recharges the batteries.

This year’s theme is ‘Inspire Inclusion’. In your role, tell us a bit about how you support this aim.

My current role is a Group Manager in West Midlands Fire Service, and I work within Operations, which is the Operational Fire Station element of our service.

Visibility. I have been blessed to have had one of the most inspirational role models in my career in our late Chief Fire Officer Wayne Brown. Over the last few years, he has championed inclusion in every space he has occupied. His leadership has been instrumental in demanding better of the fire sector.

I have made a conscious effort to raise my profile to use this to inspire others to think about how being a leader can influence outcomes, in so many ways. The intersectionality of women, and the dimensions of superpowers, or struggles that this embodies needs to be recognised, celebrated, and deciphered. No one is ‘just’ a woman. My experience takes me into internal spaces, and external places, where I choose to ensure inclusion and cohesion are a mantra connected to me.
This can lead to me being considered as ‘one dimensional’ by some, but for those who are open minded and forward thinking, particularly in relation to service delivery, that my skills and experience are used to enhance any proposal, initiative, or strategy.

I find that sharing my journey inspires others to not be afraid to stretch themselves, step out of their comfort zone, and recognise that failure should be a motivator, not a limiter. I speak at events inside and outside the fire sector, and I am not afraid to challenge the norm. I see this as being what I must do. ‘If not now, when? If not me, then who?’

I am also the chair of and a founding member of our service’s engagement group for those from BME backgrounds, and allies. This is called WMFS Inspire. We use this as a vehicle to raise the awareness of our workforce, to educate and to inspire.

Have you faced any barriers in your career due to being a woman? If so, how did you overcome them?

I have faced many barriers. As a black woman, it is sometimes difficult to pinpoint the root of these barriers. Being the first black woman to join my service as an operational firefighter, there were many misconceptions about me, that I now know have impacted on my confidence to step outside of my initial comfort zones. At each juncture within my career, it has felt like I am starting again. What I mean by this is that although I joined as a firefighter, when I wanted to do something different, it felt like I was discouraged, by attitudes and negativity. When you’re on your own, buying into negativity is probably easier to accept. I have definitely had times when I have put up my own barriers and spent time thinking I was not good enough.

One of the main things that helped me to overcome negativity, stereotypes, and my own comfort zone, was networking. I attended a Fire Brigade Union (FBU) BEAMM (Black and Ethnic Minority Members) Educational School in the 1990s and the support that that provided to me gave me encouragement, and hope, that I could overcome the challenges I was facing at the time.

Knowing I was not on my own gave me the confidence to deal with the issues I had. This ethos around networking, and finding allies, and becoming an ally to others served me well not just as a firefighter, but as I continued my development and progression through to the role of Group Manager.

How can we bring issues around gender bias to light?

In listening to the problems and issues that are being highlighted based on gender, these need to be collated centrally (by the National Fire Chief’s Council) and approached nationally in my opinion. The issue of 12 months maternity leave, that is currently being campaigned on by the FBU is a good example. Women face this problem across the country if not world. Why would we not address this as good practice and encourage alignment? Our sector knows what the issues are. Countless reports highlight concerns based on misogyny, discrimination, and harassment. The fact it took the Home Office to call us to action is more than disappointing and, particularly in a predominantly male sector, is telling to women. I would suggest a national consortium of stakeholders, working together for a common aim.

Is there a woman who inspired you in your career?

Yes, there was. My first mentor was an Assistant Chief Fire Officer in WMFS Sarah Warnes. I had looked up to her as the most senior female officer in my FRS for a long time. I joined a personal development programme , which resulted in me being assigned a coach, and it was Sarah. We met regularly, and following the programme we became friends. She helped me to build my confidence and see the qualities in myself. She championed me and helped me to step outside of my comfort zone. When she was coaching me, I did not even know really what a coach was. I went on to do a degree in leadership and management, and it wasn’t until I did that course that I really realised what Sarah had done for me. I will be forever grateful for her insight, support, and belief in me.

Share with us a woman that inspires you most, or quote that inspires you most.

I am a lover of sport, particularly athletics and netball. These sports are riddled with women who excel in their field. One that inspires me personally is Shelly-Anne Fraser, a Jamaican sprinter and one of the greatest in history. She is kind, selfless, has returned to the top of her game after having a child, and she motivates and inspires me with her grace.

As women in the FRS field, it is important for us to be kind to each other, to not play into the social media, or workplace ‘banter’ that often hurts someone, or makes them feel uncomfortable. Being self-aware and ensuring that when you can you lift another woman or straighten her crown.

Find out more about the history of women working in fire and rescue in our recent blog post.

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