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Fire Commissioner visits London South East Colleges

London’s first ever female Fire Commissioner visited students and staff at London South East Colleges’ Bromley Campus yesterday (6 December).

Commissioner Dany Cotton began her career with London Fire Brigade in 1988 when she was just 18 years old. She attended a  training programme at the Southwark Fire Training Centre after spending much of her youth as an active member of her local air cadets.

Taking to the stage in the College’s lecture theatre, Commissioner Cotton thanked the students and staff for her invite to the College before telling them all about the road to reaching the very top of her career. She said:

“It never occurred to me that it was unusual for a woman to join the fire service. I was a very confident young person and fortunate to have parents who were level-headed and open-minded; there wasn’t any stereotyping in our family.

“I applied to join the fire service as soon as I could because that was what I really wanted to do. The training was gruelling and came as a bit of a culture shock to all of the recruits – being shouted at and told to run up and down towers and achieving the sheer levels of peak physical fitness and stamina in order to pass.”

Commissioner Cotton was just three months out of training school when she and her fellow crew members were called to the 1988 Clapham Junction train crash disaster. Arriving to a scene of total devastation (with 33 deaths and over 100 injured) gave her an experience that would not be matched until six months into her role as Commissioner. This was the dreadful night of the Grenfell Tower catastrophe. She told the audience how unprecedented the fire was and how proud she is of her firefighters.

The College’s Landmark Lecture also covered the theme of women in leadership and management and the recent high-profile breakthroughs in occupations and sectors that have traditionally been seen as male-orientated. London currently has a female Police Commissioner as well as Fire Commissioner and women are breaking the mould when it comes to occupying the highest ranks in all areas of public service.

“This will only continue into the future,” Commissioner Cotton said, “and as long as we (women) are not put off joining these services, we will definitely make the grade as active members and practitioners.

“Research has shown that women have been put off a career in the fire service because it is seen as a job for men. This is simply not true. It is a job that can be performed by either sex as long as you have the physical and mental strength to handle the training and the dangers that the job brings. These are not qualities that are held solely by one gender.”

After her introduction, the Commissioner took questions from the audience which included: What was the biggest fire you have been called to? What inspired you to become a firefighter? What planning and training goes into fighting large fires? What skills and qualities are required to become a successful firefighter? How do you build character and resilience for yourself and your teams? How has social media impacted on the work of the emergency services? How many cats do you rescue out of trees each year?

Level 3 Public Services students Salim Baba, 18, and Summer Jones, 16, were amongst those who asked questions and were impressed with what they heard at the lecture.

Salim would like to become a Police Officer one day. He said: “I have great respect for the Commissioner and her story is amazing. She has risen through the initial training, worked for many years as a firefighter and saved many lives along the way. She is such an inspiration and someone who genuinely loves her job.”

Summer would like to join the Army when she completes her course. She said: “Dany is the perfect role model for me. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to her today and she has given me inspiration. She is passionate about the fire service and so supportive and proud of the work she and her firefighters do for the Capital.”

Commissioner Cotton has a long list of coveted honours and awards to her name which include the 2002 Outstanding Public Servant Award, the Queen’s Fire Service Medal, the Fire Brigade Long Service and Good Conduct Medal, and in 2010 was named by the Independent as one of ‘100 women who changed the world’.

College Principal, Sam Parrett OBE summed up of the lecture by saying: “Dany Cotton is one of the UK’s most successful and experienced public servants and a real-life hero. I was delighted to learn that she would attend the College and give this presentation to our students. They can benefit tremendously from hearing about her principles and self-belief as well as her courage to step up to such a highly important role such as this.

“Learning about her career, the extreme situations she has had to face, and the very difficult ‘life or death’ decisions she is forced to make in her job, you can only admire her determination and grit.

“She is pretty much the ultimate role model for both men and women who would like to follow her footsteps in keeping our citizens safe and well. I would like to thank Dany from all of us at the College for taking time out of her very busy schedule to visit us today.”

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