Female officer at centre of mission-critical policies and procedures within fire service

To mark International Women’s Day (on 8 March), we’re profiling different female fire service staff this week, all of whom play a vital role in Hereford & Worcester Fire and Rescue Service.

Today we meet Watch Commander Michelle Hicks, who works in the service’s Operational Policy Department, involved in actioning the critical policies and procedures that staff rely on to deliver a 21st
century firefighting service.

Describing where she fits into this life saving service, Michelle says:

“As a Watch Commander in our Operational Policy team, I’m at the centre of ensuring our policies and procedures are fit for purpose, helping to make sure our staff have access to the up to date information they need to do their jobs. I love the fact that my role gives me the opportunity to have a positive impact on the information they rely on each time they respond to a callout.

“I’ve been in this particular department for two years, since transferring from another fire service. The role’s been great for my development and to allow me to see the fire service in a more holistic and rounded way.”

Although Michelle joined the fire service 15 years ago and has never looked back, she originally worked in the education sector, balancing a career in the world of education with her first taste of fire service life:

“I originally worked as a pre-school nursery manager but alongside this work I put in time as an on-call firefighter. This gave me a real insight into the fire service and I quickly realised that it was something I wanted to make my full-time job.

“I’ve gone from strength to strength since then – it’s quite simply the best job in the world. It’s a pleasure to serve local communities and be there to help them, through prevention, education, protection and during incidents when our communities need us the most.”

Michelle’s job certainly comes as a surprise to non-fire service friends:

“Usually their first question is ‘do you mean you actually go in to fires?’ followed by ‘can you drive a fire engine?’ Although light-hearted conversations, they give me the chance to convey serious messages about what we do, the fact that both men and women have equal status in the service, and to encourage more women to apply, once I’ve explained that it’s open to everyone.

Michelle Hicks operational

“And yes, I can drive a fire appliance!”

Michelle’s own experience of life as a fire fighter has enabled her to see for herself the top priority that the service places on work-life balance, which has allowed her  to meet family as well as career responsibilities:

“I’ve raised my children as a single parent, so having a supportive main employer has been vital to me, allowing me to be on-call for certain hours of the day and provide day time cover as appropriate. The great thing about being on-call is that you agree to a set number of hours and those are your committed hours. You can choose the hours that suit both you and your fire station.

“But as long as you have a proper, workable routine in place, then your commitments can be managed to everyone’s satisfaction. Being an on-call firefighter is like  having a second family who are all keen to give you all possible support, guidance and development.”

In Michelle’s case, she stresses that family commitments and being a woman have never stood in the way of career progress:

“Every employee is treated equally within our service and we’re given the same opportunities regardless of gender. I’ve now been a wholetime firefighter for almost five years and in that time I’ve been steadily promoted, advancing from Firefighter to Crew Commander to Watch Commander.

“I recently passed the Station Commander process and will soon be moving into a new role supporting our on-call fire stations in south Herefordshire. I’ve been so heartened by the amount of support and advice I’ve been given from line managers and colleagues both male and female, every step of the way.”

For Michelle, the job is so rewarding that sometimes she has to make a point of ‘switching off’, as she explains:

“To be honest, sometimes it is difficult to switch off because I love what I do. So I consciously make time every day to follow up leisure pursuits, whether it’s spending time with my family,  going for a walk or meeting up with friends.

“My line managers are really mindful that everyone needs to have enough rest and ‘down time’ away from work.”

As a profession where staff encounter challenging situations on a weekly basis, Michelle stresses that the Service places huge store on individual wellbeing, with  numerous programmes in place to underpin this, reaching out to women firefighters just as much as their male counterparts:

“From a female perspective, we have a number of great initiatives. I love being part of Women@HWFire – our Women’s network – since it’s a two-way process: as well as receiving all possible support from female colleagues I’m able to give it back. It’s great having people to talk to who may have similar experiences, and to receive coaching and mentoring.

“Our women’s network runs some excellent development events which let us try to out skills like Incident Command, where we can see what’s involved in coordinating larger multi-agency fire or rescue emergencies, as well as providing a platform for feedback and areas for future improvement, tailor-made to help women reach their goals.”

“Events like the Women’s Fitness programme that we ran for female firefighter applicants are also invaluable, since they give women the opportunity to discover that they have the physical capacity for the role, providing guidance on how to improve fitness levels.

“Initiatives such as these can make a real difference in a woman’s decision on whether or not to become a firefighter, as well as providing future support and helping improve diversity within the Service.”

For anyone still unsure, Michelle says:

“As far as I’m concerned, this is the best job in the world and if it’s something you’re interested in doing, then go for it! If you’re not sure, your local fire station will be happy to answer any questions and can talk you through the recruitment process. One of the great things about this job is working with inspirational people who want to see you succeed.”

If you’d like to know how to join the Fire Service and make a difference in a wide variety of roles, you can find out more at Join us | Hereford & Worcester Fire and Rescue Service (hwfire.org.uk)