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Fighting for diversity

PICTURED: Samantha Samuels

THE FIRE service is still predominantly occupied by white men. And with only 3.9% of firefighters from ethnic minority backgrounds, these figures continue to reflect a need for representation in an industry which affects lives across the UK.

While this need for inclusion is key, there are prominent figures within the fire service who've championed diversity and overcome challenges to represent the importance of occupying these positions to those from underrepresented communities.

“I stand tall in my community as a black woman,” said Samantha Samuels, a station commander at West Midlands Fire and the first black female firefighter in the service. “People look up to me, and that’s set high expectations. This can sometimes be challenging, but I think that’s necessary.”

Samuels was born in Wolverhampton to Jamaican parents, and her interest in the fire service began at 16 years old. “When I was a teenager, the fire service were advertising in local newspapers for their 16-18 scheme that they were doing. They had a picture of a female firefighter and when I saw that I just thought I would try and join,” said Samuels.

Samuels began her time in the service in 1990 where she quickly became known as the first black female in the brigade. “I didn’t know i was gonna be the first when i joined,” recalled Samuels. “It wasn't until i was actually in and there was quite a lot of publicity that came with me joining the brigade.”

Taking on that coveted role came with a lot of pressure for Samuels, but she was lucky to confide in her peers to help navigate the many challenges thrown her way. “Being the unique person that I am, I think in my earlier career it was quite difficult. I was younger, didn't have a lot of life experiences and that made certain situations difficult.

“But I spoke to fellow colleagues which helped me and I found help from other black people who I confided in and they helped to get me through,” said the 47-year-old. “We also had a support network and i was able to access them to help me through how i was feeling at the time.”

Taking on such an active role undoubtedly has its challenges and Samuels has worked hard to promote careers in the fire service to people in her community in Birmingham as well acting as a coach to the increasing number of women - including black women - who are joining the ranks.

“Since i’ve been a firefighter, the way I serve my community has taken different forms throughout the years. From small scale stuff like being a role model to talking to groups of children and going to community events to talk about my career in the fire service, it’s all helpful and a way to reach out.

This bid to promote a career in fire service has been backed by the Home Office who’ve been working with Fire England and individual fire and rescue services to promote firefighting as a career to more people. Samuels even features in the Government’s firefighter diversity campaign as the fire service is still overwhelmingly white and male (95% in England).

“There are maybe 50 black women who are firefighters and fire officers up and down the country and most of them I know have been engaged in trying to make people aware that it is a career that brings value to our lives.”

“At 44, I’m now a station commander with 27 years of service. I’m not afraid to be myself – I love my life and my work.”

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