New South Yorkshire fire chief on November's floods, funding issues and the exciting challenge ahead
“I have got my dream job.”
As South Yorkshire’s new Chief Fire Officer, Alex Johnson, 52, sits in her Sheffield city centre office, her delight at leading the service she joined three years ago is obvious.
She was appointed to the role late last year, with her interview talking place the week after November’s devastating county-wide floods.
As assistant chief fire officer during the incident, Alex played a leading role in the service’s response to the event.
“It is the biggest incident I have ever been in charge of and the first time I declared a major incident,” she says.
“We rescued hundreds of people - I think we lost count.
“My daughter was going to the light switch on at Meadowhall and I sat there that night seeing the water rise in Sheffield and knowing it was going to Rotherham and end up in Doncaster.
“I was thinking have we got resources, how long is this going to last, when is the rain going to stop?
“It was exciting and it was great to see that we dealt with it - but I have never been so tired in my life.”
Before moving to South Yorkshire in 2017, Alex served as a firefighter and later a fire officer in Derbyshire, starting her career in Ilkeston almost three decades ago.
“You do get comments like ‘she got it because she is a woman’, but I started 28 years ago as a firefighter and I have worked my way up steadily,” she says.
“It is the best job in the world because every day is different and even at my level you don’t know what is going to happen.
“Things have changed so much that emergency responses are actually quite a small part of what we do now because of our community safety work.
“We are getting really good at identifying people who are more likely to have fires or more likely to die if they do have a fire.
“That is why we have far fewer fire deaths than we have ever had before.”
In terms of challenges, Alex says the current funding arrangements continue to be a ‘huge issue’.
The service has been getting only yearly funding settlements, something Alex says makes it impossible for them to adequately plan for the future.
This led last year to a review proposing that the number of firefighters per engine could be reduced to four from five if the funding shortfall couldn't be made up.
“At the moment we don’t need to do that but it is there if we need to,” says Alex.
“I don’t want to see fewer firefighters, fewer fire engines or fewer fire stations. Why should the people of South Yorkshire wait any longer than anywhere else?
“But we are working with the FBU and Unison to lobby government to say fund us properly and give us a longer-term funding solution.”
Other challenges include renewing an estate in desperate need of investment, and she is especially excited about the imminent recruitment of 24 new firefighters to their ranks.
As the service’s first woman chief officer in its almost half a century in existence, she is understandably keen to encourage more women to follow in her footsteps.
“The percentage of women firefighters is currently about 6 per cent so it is pretty low,” she says.
“But it is changing and I guess the more role models there are the more people see it as a potential role for them.
“So it would be great to see more women and people from other underrepresented groups.
“We serve a very diverse community, why shouldn’t we be as diverse as they are?”