New West Sussex fire chief’s journey from teen homelessness to rising through the ranks

New West Sussex chief fire officer Sabrina Cohen-Hatton
New West Sussex chief fire officer Sabrina Cohen-Hatton

“In many ways I wanted to do something where I could rescue other people in a way no one rescued me.”

Picture a tiny teenage girl walking the streets of Monmouth in Wales from dawn to dusk, in rain or shine, clutching a bundle of Big Issue magazines.

She’s been on the streets since she was 15 years old and is trying desperately to make enough money to claw her way out of the poverty which has blighted her life since the death of her father.

Now ask yourself what you think the future holds for that child.

It’s easy to imagine a string of almost Dickensian fates, none of them happy, but chief fire officer at West Sussex Fire & Rescue Service is probably not high on the list.

Meet Dr Sabrina Cohen-Hatton.

It’s 21 years – and one ‘very small, crappy flat’ – later and she has a long career with the fire service under her belt, not to mention a PhD in psychology.

After dragging herself up from the streets, she now she faces the task of dragging the county’s fire service out of the depths of a frankly awful inspectorate report.

With her background, it’s little wonder that people are at the centre of her plans.

One week into the job and nursing a no-doubt annoying cold, Dr Cohen-Hatton said she intended to present the inspectorate with a much-improved picture over the coming years.

Overall, the inspectorate rated West Sussex ‘requires improvement’, with two areas – ‘protecting the public through fire regulation’ and ‘ensuring fairness and promoting diversity’ – found to be ‘inadequate’.

It was the latter, which deals directly with staff, which struck a chord – her psychology work involves looking at decision-making and the human impact of choices made.

So how can that transfer to the needs of the fire service? Dr Cohen-Hatton’s view is that if they ‘get the people element right, everything else falls in behind that’.

She said: “When we look at the findings from that inspection report, particularly around people, I’m really, really keen to get underneath the nub of that problem.

“The report tells us a lot – and that’s so helpful – but we need to go a layer beneath that to really understand the crux of the challenges so that we can try to fix them.”

The fire service knew there were problems long before the report was published and there has been a lot of work going on to address the issues raised.

For the staff there are listening groups, where they are encouraged to explain what has gone wrong from the grass roots up.

Another problem Dr Cohen-Hatton is keen to stamp on is the stereotypical assumption about what a firefighter should look like – most likely male and beefy.

She knows that she is hardly what people would picture when asked to imagine a firefighter – and that, she said, is part of the problem when it comes to attracting the best people to the service.

It’s a problem not helped by the inspectorate highlighting accusations of bullying among staff due to gender or race.

She said: “That stereotype of what a firefighter is is so strong out there in the public that people who might be the best firefighter that we potentially never had might not even think about joining the fire service as a career because they can’t relate to it.

“Challenging what that stereotype is, both externally so we get the best people, and internally so people all know that they have a place, that they belong here, that we include everybody, that’s so important.”

She freely acknowledges that she didn’t appear to be a brilliant prospect when she applied to join the service, and finds it amazing that they looked past what was on the outside and took her on ‘on the strength of who they believed I could be’.

That’s an experience she wants to share with others who might be second guessing themselves.

She said: “I would also say to people that the kind of skills and the kind of qualities that you need to be a good firefighter aren’t determined by anything that the stereotype might portray.

“It’s about being calm under pressure, it’s about being decisive, it’s about being able to work as part of a team.

“So I would say to people, if they’re considering a career in the fire service, look into it, come along, speak to us because we need people.”

So why, after 21 years, did she decide to open up about her time on the streets?

Dr Cohen-Hatton admits the decision was hard – she would prefer to look forward rather than back – but she had realised that she should not feel ashamed of what happened – and should not be afraid of appearing vulnerable.

She said: “As a fire service leader you’re supposed to be invincible, and talking about something like that shows you’re not – you’re vulnerable. Showing you’re vulnerable can feel like a bit of a risk sometimes.

“The reason I wanted to do it is because I know there are still thousands of people out there in the same space today that I was back then – and I wanted them to know that your circumstances don’t define you or determine where you end up, only where you start from.”

It’s a decision which has seen her receive heartfelt notes from others – including two firefighters – who had been through the same thing and never spoken about it.

Her career path has certainly not been an easy ride. She has spent the bulk of her time as a London firefighter, serving time as deputy assistant commissioner for the north west of the city, as well as spending a year at the inspectorate.

Her last posting was a brief stint as deputy assistant commissioner at Surrey Fire & Rescue – of whom the inspectorate has been equally critical – before coming over to West Sussex.

So why would she jump from one problem authority to another?

The answer, unsurprisingly, was all about the people – those inside the service and those who called on them in time of need.

Dr Cohen-Hatton said: “When you think about taking up a chief fire officer post, most people don’t necessarily think of going to a challenging brigade. I understand why some people would say why West Sussex?

“There are people out there who rely on our service, who trust us to know what to do when they’re having their most difficult day. We are in a really privileged position to have their trust at a time like they’re experiencing.

“So for me, the opportunity to come in and help to shape a service, to be able to deliver that service that people need is really important.”

She smiled and added: “Why wouldn’t you want to be a part of that?”