Fran Flin has been a firefighter with the London Fire Brigade for 26 years, and in that time she’s fought raging fires, extricated people from broken-down lifts and, yes, even rescued the occasional cat from a tree.
It all started because I was going out with a fireman. He didn’t last long, but I remember him saying: ‘They’re even letting women in now.’ Until then, I’d never thought of it as a possibility.
There weren’t many female firefighters [in the LFB] back then. Now, there are around 300. When I joined, most men were concerned about whether I was strong enough to do the job.
When we went into lockdown, we had quite a lot of domestic garden fires, shed fires and barbecues alight. Lots of people were spending more time in their gardens and clearing their houses. Obviously, they couldn’t get to the dump so there were lots of false alarms when people were burning stuff.
I’ve definitely noticed people being more grateful since the pandemic. Someone’s patio heater was alight and we were there for ages putting it out. When we left, the neighbours were clapping us. I really didn’t expect it. It made me quite tearful.
During the pandemic, the biggest change has been how we deal with the public. We now always wear masks and gloves and we ask people if they’re self-isolating. If we have to go into a Covid house, we wear respirators. We’ve just had to just adapt and crack on: it’s part of the job.
My most dangerous day on the job was a fire at a flour silo. You get these things called dust explosions and flour is dust. We were crawling along to put out the fire and my colleague said to me: ‘We’ve got six kids between us, and we’re here trying to save Orpington’s bread!’
The worst thing about the job is seeing people in distress. You’re often seeing them on their worst day, when their house is being burnt down. Part of me has learned to think: Just do your job. But I often have a little cry afterwards.
I don’t actually like sliding down the pole. We have one in our fire station, but I’ve never got the hang of it. I either grip with my thighs too hard and don’t move, or I don’t grip enough and I slide down too fast. I tend to just take the stairs.
We don’t really rescue cats from trees. You’re supposed to call the RSPCA. That said, I did have to save one in Orpington from the top of the tallest fir tree I’ve ever seen. We had to get a specialist crane to get us anywhere near the cat.
I avoided driving the fire engine for years. When I did, it was like a whole new world. We did blue-light training all around the East End and I loved it. It’s like solving a puzzle, looking ahead in traffic and working out how you’re going to safely negotiate through. It’s my favourite thing about the job.
‘My Mummy Is a Firefighter’, created in partnership between London Fire Brigade and Butterfly Books, is out now.
Want more great London stories? We reunite regulars with their favourite haunts