Anne Willmott on the lessons we can learn from the London Fire Brigade

Published 11th July 2018
In 1987, Anne Willmott, a trained counsellor, was recruited by a forward-thinking Chief Fire Officer to set up a professional Counselling and Advice service for the London Fire Brigade. In a conversation with First 100 Years, she discusses the obstacles she came up against, working in a male-dominated environment, and what needs to change in our work culture.

Teamwork was the foundation of the macho culture in the 1980s, and firefighters had to show tough exteriors at all times, believing that to show feelings of any kind would imply weakness. They knew that, regardless of problems at home or at work, they had to be seen to be strong.

Anne says she soon became aware of the high levels of sickness absence and was determined that the new service, which aimed “to keep people at work in times of difficulty” could make a cost-effective contribution to overall efficiency.

As Anne began the slow process of developing relationships, building bridges and earning trust, it was important to acknowledge the many expressions of hostility and wariness; she was told “we managed all these years without someone like you.” True. Anne believes that respecting the tradition of firefighters coping in their own way, was vital. Gradually though, she was able to help groups and individuals, recognise that there could be a price to pay later for “managing” so well. Suppressed feelings – rage, sadness, loss, helplessness – can result in unrecognised depression, relationship problems at home and work, as well as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which at that time was almost unheard of.

A few months after the service was set up, the King’s Cross Underground Fire killed 31 people, including a Senior Fire Officer. Whilst being a hugely traumatic event for the Fire Service, Anne says it provided an opportunity for the first time, to meet every firefighter involved to talk through the incident with the aim of preventing the onset of PTSD. Following this major disaster, she then set up a protocol for debriefing after all serious incidents, in order to process feelings at the time rather than burying them and possibly causing later problems.

Anne remembers when women first joined the Fire Service. There was enormous resistance and suspicion from may in the male workforce. Female firefighters had to struggle to prove themselves and be accepted. But the Fire Service management put great emphasis on Equality Policies and this played a key part in the profound and lasting culture change which followed.

Over time, the presence of female firefighters has had a huge and positive impact on the workforce and its public perception and image. They have provided role models for young women from a wide variety of backgrounds and The London Fire Service now proudly has its first female Commissioner, Dany Cotton.

In many areas, such as finance and law challenges remain, with ongoing debate about how to make these male-dominated environments more welcoming to women. In some areas of the legal profession, work culture still needs to change in order to improve mental and physical well-being, as well as diversity.

Anne herself remembers her fifteen years in engineering and how she was gradually side-lined and given less prestigious work following the birth of her daughter. She believes the Fire Service has shown what can be achieved when an organisation commits itself to positive change.

Interviewed by Annabel Twose, Project Coordinator of First 100 Years