From teenage homelessness to one of Sussex’s top fire jobs: Meet Dr Sabrina Cohen-Hatton

Dr Sabrina Cohen-Hatton. Credit: WSFRS.

At just 15 years old, Dr Sabrina Cohen-Hatton found herself selling the Big Issue on the streets of Monmouth in Wales.

Over two decades later, she’s in her second week as West Sussex Fire & Rescue Service’s newest Chief Fire Officer, after working her way up through the ranks.

During a period of over 20 years, she’s faced challenges including poverty, homelessness and sexual harassment in the workplace.

So how did she overcome all of this to get where she is today?

Speaking to More Radio, she had this advice to any women looking to work for an emergency service:

“Don’t be afraid to be different, and don’t apologise for who you are, because actually, if you are in a position where you are different, and you don’t conform to the stereotype, that can be incredibly liberating, because you’re not constrained by that stereotype.”

Talking about her life on the streets, she said:

“Just before I was 16, our family broke down and I found myself sleeping rough.

“It was a horrible period in my life, it was incredibly difficult and there were times when I came to harm and I was hungry, and I had no food.

“I can’t explain how humiliating it is when people walk past you and they look at you like it’s your fault, or they look at you with disgust, or they cross the road to avoid you.

“It was soul-destroying.”

Dr Cohen-Hatton started selling the Big Issue while homeless in a bid to save for a deposit on a flat, after she was informed she was not a priority for housing because she was already homeless.

Once she was able to rent a flat, she became interested in the fire service as she said she wanted to inspire and help people on ‘the worst day of their lives’.

She said:

“We are trusted by people to know what to do when they’re having the worst day of their lives, and I knew what the worst day of your life felt like, so I think, in a funny way, I wanted to rescue other people in a way that no-one had been able to rescue me.”

Her challenges didn’t end there though, and she started experiencing problems in the early days of her firefighting career.

She said:

“In the early days of my career I experienced sexual harassment, and I was told that things had to be different for me because I’m a woman.

“It’s really isolating when you have those kind of experiences.”

She persevered, and spent 18 years working her way up to senior roles with the London Fire Brigade, South Wales Fire and Rescue Service, Welsh Government and, most recently, as Interim Deputy Chief Fire Officer for Surrey Fire and Rescue Service.

Now, she’s come to West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service during a difficult period, after government inspectors published a damning report earlier this year, rating the service as ‘requires improvement’ with two areas ‘inadequate’.

Part of the report from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) listed allegations of bullying due to gender or race, something Dr Cohen-Hatton has said she is determined to tackle by looking to develop the culture of the service.

But she said she knows it won’t be an easy task:

“You can’t write a strategy that says, this is going to be our new culture, and we’re going to change it from April 1, it doesn’t work like that.

“Culture reflects the way people experience their everyday, it reflects the way they expect to be treated, so I know that we’ve got to work really hard on that.”

One of her government secondments was working at HMICFRS, experience which she believes she can bring to the service as part of an improvement plan.

She said:

“What I think that gives me, is an insight into how we are judged, but it’s much more than that.

“It also gave me exposure into a number of fire and rescue services across the country, and what you’re able to take from that is examples of good practice, examples of where it’s worked really well, as well as examples where it hasn’t worked so well and you can understand some of the pitfalls and avoid them happening.”

As well as the improvement plan, Dr Cohen-Hatton also has a number of other priorities for the service during her time:

“My biggest priorities are absolutely the people.

“It’s getting the service right for the people relying on us, and preventing as many incidents from happening in the first place as we possibly can.

“Also, it’s about the people who make up the service and getting the culture right within the fire and rescue service to do that.

“We’re always looking at our recruitment processes and what we can do.

“I would say we need a broader demographic of people to apply for the job and what I’ve experienced is, particularly with women, because the stereotype doesn’t necessarily relate to us, it can be quite hard to consider it as a role.

“I want to say to those women, please don’t be put off by the stereotype, because the kind of qualities you need to be a good firefighter are not determined by gender.

“It’s about being calm under pressure, it’s about working well as a team, it’s about being decisive.

“My concern is that some of the best potential firefighters out there might not have even considered a role, because they can’t see themselves within the stereotype and that’s what I want to challenge.”

Dr Sabrina Cohen-Hatton was talking to Jamie Crow.