Justine Brooks chatted with the amazing, barrier-busting Josephine Reynolds about Fire Woman, her book detailing her life as Britain’s first female firefighter.
Just as Dany Cotton has been appointed as the first female Fire Commissioner of the London Fire Brigade, Josephine Reynolds, the woman who in 1982 became Britain’s first female firefighter, has released a book about her extraordinary experiences.
Read the dedication in Josephine Reynolds book Fire Woman and you know you’re dealing with an unconventional woman.
This book is for you – the brave and the bold.
Let your light shine brightly.
The table of contents then lets you know that this book is pretty damn rock’n’roll actually, with each chapter taking the title of a song: Burning Down the House, Welcome to the Pleasuredome, Teenage Kicks, Prince Charming etc.
Set against this excellently eclectic 1980s soundtrack, Jo Reynolds tells the story of her training and subsequent four years in the fire service.
“I was 17 years old,” she says on the phone to me from Norfolk, where she trained and served in the fire service, and to where she has returned from Siem Riep in Cambodia to launch Fire Woman.
“I was living with my mum, my brother and my stepdad in Pembrokeshire. All the people around me were from well off farming families and planning to go to university, and all I wanted to do was get out and get a job.”
It was 1982, right in the middle of the Thatcher years and there was very high unemployment. Having gone to live with her dad in Norfolk, Jo saw an ad in a newspaper for a traineeship role in the fire service and applied.
For someone who broke boundaries, Jo didn’t have a particular drive to join the fire service; it was more that the opportunity presented itself, she thought, ‘what the hell’ and went for it. That’s the kind of woman she is. “I’d left school with four O-Levels and the Police Cadets were full. It seemed like something I could have a go at,” she says.
“Jo’s first interview involved running up ladders carrying a 12-stone body bag. Erm, how? ‘I have a really fuck you attitude and I’m really strong. So I aced that.'”
However, her nonchalance conceals a steely resolve. When she was invited to interview, she turned up to find she was the only woman there. Her first interview involved running up ladders carrying a 12-stone body bag. Erm, how? “I have a really ‘fuck you’ attitude and I’m really strong,” she says. “So I aced that.” Then the would-be recruits wore blackened out masks and crawled through tunnels, “like a sports day from hell, or a weird teenage S&M party.”
Having got through the physical, Jo went on to meet the interviewing panel including Norfolk’s Chief Fire Officer. Questions included: “How will you be able to work with men?” and “What if you have other priorities later in life?” Questions not asked of the male candidates.
“I was a bit bolshy and replied that it depended on how well they trained me,” says Jo. “I’d already decided I never wanted to have children in any case.”
Bolshy paid off. She was selected for a new 15-month training programme with which the fire service were trying to update the force. Welcoming a woman into the service seemed like an obvious choice in a changing world where a woman could be prime minister.
Jo had to wear men’s uniform, and also train with the men, running seven miles every morning followed by a day of gruelling exercises. She says most days, she would throw up. “The training was hard – one of the guys who trained us was an absolute bastard – I changed his name in the book – I’m still haunted by memories of him.”
Her determination won out and she graduated with flying colours.
After her passing out, she received a great deal of media attention, not all of it entirely positive, although she was delighted to be invited onto breakfast TV where she was interviewed by Chris Tarrant. The other guest was her idol, Adam Ant. Jo ended up giving Chris Tarrant a fireman’s lift and carrying him off set.
What’s refreshing about Jo is that although she obviously took her role as a firefighter extremely seriously, she doesn’t take herself too seriously. The key to doing a job like that, she says, is: “You always have to be ready. And you have to remember that the next incident could be more extreme. You have to do the job.”
Was she accepted as a firewoman? “Yes, people accepted me. A few guys had trouble with it, but ultimately they knew what I’d been through with the training so they didn’t give me problems. I was posted to Thetford in Norfolk and met and worked with really good guys there. It was a great team. Nigel Monument our sub officer is one of my best friends even now.”
During her time as a firefighter in Thetford, Jo dealt with suicides, horrific traffic accidents and munitions-based incidents. She also recaptured a monkey that had escaped from the zoo, coaxing it down from a rooftop. The zoo later named the monkey Josephine.
“Women bring something different to an organisation like the fire service,” she says. “We have different ways of connecting with people. Often we have a lot more about us than we think. When you look inside yourself you can find great strength.”
During her time as a firewoman, Jo met a former legionnaire and they later married. She left the fire service so they could travel the world together.
The marriage broke down in 1990 and Jo became something of a professional adventurer, her various jobs including being a high-powered business woman in China, a model and TV presenter in Thailand, a conflict journalist smuggled into Burma, a qualified sea captain, working in a factory in Norfolk and organising drug trials in the Himalayas.
She has gone on to experience every kind of lifestyle and still enjoys finding new challenges and projects. She describes herself as a free spirit, searching for spiritual and professional fulfilment (not to mention love).
Right now she’s busy talking to everyone about her book, which she was encouraged to write by her friends, photographer Martyn Goodacre and writer Paul Moody. “They knew I’d been a fire woman and I’d shown them the cuttings and they kept telling me there was a book in it. I was pretty sceptical for a long time but then I decided to give it a go. And here we are!”
Her time as a fire woman taught Jo important life lessons, as well as a lot about herself. “I have a very easy connection with people and I’m very open with them. It’s important to treat people the way you want to be treated. I have a sense of things. I never feel scared or daunted… that’s not false bravado – if a situation feels wrong, I’m aware of that.
“For example, I was sent to report on Cambodia’s biggest slum by Al Jazeera. I know a lot of guys who wouldn’t go into that slum, but I believe that if you let people know who you are and what you’re doing, you’re making a human connection that makes all the difference.”
What’s next for Jo? She’d like to be the female version of Bear Grylls – and if anyone can achieve it, it’s this excellent woman.
Fire Woman is published by Michael O’ Mara Books, £9.99
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Justine lives in beautiful north Leeds with her 12-year-old daughter and a lurcher called Lionel. She runs a PR and marketing agency and is writing a novel.