Sabrina Cohen-Hatton joined the South Wales fire service at the age of 18. She had been homeless for her last few years at school after her father died of a brain tumour. She worked her way through the ranks, and is now the chief fire officer at West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service.
Sabrina married a firefighter and they have a daughter. Soon after the baby was born, Sabrina undertook a PhD in Psychology and recalls in the book how she completed it two years earlier than predicted. She would get up at 5am to go to the lab, work a full day at the fire station, go home to put her child to bed and then return to the lab, getting home for bed in the early hours. It is an astonishing achievement and, throughout her story, it is evident that she is incredibly determined, driven and single-minded. I'm not sure how easy she would be to work for or with!
She doesn't dwell on the terrible tragedies or awful scenes which firefighters face on a regular basis, though ponders with compassion, empathy and understanding on the lives affected by the incidents they attend. "Our every day is someone's worst day."
The key theme of the book is in analysing the character traits of the firefighters. Her research into the lives of her colleagues and how they respond to such extreme and devastating incidents is fascinating. How does their work affect them? How do they make the life and death decisions necessary in their work? How are the decisions affected by physical and mental exhaustion? How do they respond to stress?
Her research has identified that 80% of the decisions made by firefighters are due to gut instinct, with the other 20% due to an analytical approach.
There will always be human error in this work, she concludes: "Judge us, and hold us to account, and demand an effective, efficient service, but walk a mile in our shoes too. Know that not a day goes by when we don't ask ourselves if we could have done better. Even when, sometimes, our best would never have been enough." A powerful, humbling and thought-provoking read.
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