On growing up: I grew up in Newport in Wales and my parents ran a pizzeria in Cardiff. I remember them saying how lucky they were to have two healthy children and a happy home. But when I was nine, my father died of a brain tumour and our lives were shattered. My mum couldn’t cope and she suffered terribly with her mental health. When people go to war with their demons, everyone around them gets hit with the shrapnel. The business folded and we sunk into abject poverty. We were on the at-risk register for years with social workers coming and going. By the time I was 15, it was too much and I ended up leaving home and living on the streets.
On being homeless: I didn’t want to go into care so I continued going to school and tried to hide the fact that I was staying in a derelict building. My education was the one thing I had control over. One day, one of the other rough sleepers found my school books stashed in a box, each labelled with my very Jewish surname – and he attacked me, holding a lit cigarette to my arm and spewing antisemitic abuse. Once, I woke up to find someone urinating on me. Mostly, people would just walk past me and ignore me altogether; even one of my teachers spotted me and crossed over to the other side of the street. It was such a dehumanising experience.
On turning her life around: I thought, “This can’t be me. I can’t stay in this life.” I started selling the Big Issue but competition in Newport was fierce – I’d make about £15 a day at best – so I’d get a bus to Monmouth every morning and work from 7am-7pm until I’d sold every copy. It took a few attempts to get off the streets and into secure accommodation. Eventually, I scraped together enough money to put down a deposit on a tiny rented flat in a deprived area of South Wales called Risca – a town far enough away that I wouldn’t be recognised. No one would look at me with pity; it was a fresh start. That’s when I started to think about what else I could do with my life. I wanted to rescue people in a way that no one had rescued me. Risca had a part-time fire station so I applied, passed the interview and became a firefighter. Now I’m one of just six female fire chiefs in the UK and, at 36, I’m the youngest.
On social mobility: I didn’t need a degree or formal qualifications to join the fire service: they hired me on the strength of who they believed I could be. There are 14 million people in the UK who live in poverty (four million of which are children) and they are all filled to the brim with potential – but they don’t have the same opportunities as those with access to money. The next generation of lawyers, doctors, policymakers and parliamentarians shouldn’t be based on economic status and privilege – that has to change. If we want a meritocracy, we need to recognise that so many people are yards behind the start line. That’s not a fair race.
On her role models: My grandmother was attacked with a machete in anti-Semitic riots in Morocco in 1948. At least 43 Jews were slaughtered in that pogrom. My grandfather was told that she’d been taken to a makeshift morgue and he had to search through a pile of corpses to find her. When he eventually pulled her body out, she gasped for air: she was still alive. She got medical treatment and, as soon as she was well enough, they fled Morocco. My grandmother lived with us in Wales when we were little and my father was ill. I never once heard her talk about her attackers with hate or resentment: she simply pitied them for growing up in a world filled with hate. She has real compassion and inner strength. I have so much respect and admiration for her.
On her toughest moments: My husband Mike is also a firefighter and worked at a neighbouring station. I was called to an incident and was told that someone from Mike’s crews had been badly burnt: there was a one in four chance it was him. When we got there, firefighters were huddled around an injured man. I saw Mike stand up and was overwhelmed with relief – but then flooded with guilt. The person who was lying injured on the floor wasn’t just a colleague, he was a friend.
I really struggled with those emotions. The only way I could cope was to try and help prevent incidents like that happening again so I started researching firefighter injuries. I discovered that 80% of injuries across all industries occur due to human error: looking at policies, procedures and equipment wouldn’t help my mission, but looking at decision-making in stressful, high-pressure situations would. I signed up to do a degree in psychology at the Open University and ended up completing a PhD, all while working full-time and having a baby. I never slept! I’ve won 10 global science awards for my research into incident command in the emergency services and I’m now an honorary fellow at Cardiff University.
On her style: My style is high-end high-street. I have an hour-glass figure so I tend to wear tailored clothing: anything baggy swamps me. At home, I’ll go for skinny jeans and knitwear. For events and media interviews, I’ll pick a fitted, classic dress or a suit. I’m 5ft 1in so I always wear heels!
On staying sane: On a typical Sunday afternoon, you’ll find me walking our two Mexican hairless dogs, Jimmy Chew and Luther, or reading. I’ve just finished Soldier Spy by Tom Marcus, Shelf Life by Livia Franchini and The Five by Hallie Rubenhold. My favourite book of all time is The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway. I love hanging out with our daughter Gabriella – she’s fun, feisty and our time together is really precious. I write letters to her all the time, telling her about life experiences or just letting her know how proud I am of her. Losing a parent at an early age makes you very aware of your own mortality: if anything happens to me, I want her to be able to hear my voice and know that she is loved.
On her most powerful piece of advice to other women: Being brave doesn’t mean you’re not afraid. It means you go on even though you are.
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