Trailblazing Cambridgeshire firefighter - one of the first female crew members in the county - retires

One of Cambridgeshire’s first woman firefighters has attended her last emergency incident as she retires after 30 years of service - including 14 in Peterborough..

Thursday, 6th May 2021, 11:43 am
Nicola Barlow
Nicola Barlow

Nicola Barlow (50) leaves her current watch at Wisbech Fire Station after beginning her career in April 1991.

Originally from Newton in Fenland, Nicola became the first woman to join Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue Service as a wholetime (full-time) firefighter and retires after serving at stations around the county before ending her career close to home.

While Nicola was one of the first, there are now 21 serving women wholetime firefighters and 18 serving women on-call firefighters.

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Nicola Barlow

Prior to her joining, the Service had one operational woman serving as an on-call firefighter. Nicola said: “Being the first woman wholetime firefighter to join generated a lot of interest across the Service, which looking back I guess I was rather naïve to at the time. I was however welcomed by the crews and was able to settle in.

“After a few working incidents, I was able to show that I was a competent firefighter and had the skills needed to deal with emergencies. After a field fire I attended, one of the older members of the crew came to me to say how I impressed them with how hard I had worked and the skills I’d demonstrated. It was a good feeling to know that what I’d learnt at training school had paid off.”

At the time of Nicola joining, the fire service looked very different to how it does today, particularly for women. There were no female station facilities or uniform. Her first payslip even gave her role as firewoman. This however didn’t deter Nicola from pursuing a career as a firefighter.

She added: “While I was studying, I would often see the Wisbech crew practicing their skills in the station drill yard from the window of the isle College library. It looked like an interesting and challenging job, so I went to find out more about the role, only to be told at the time there were no women in the fire service. A few weeks later a relative made me aware of a job advert for firefighters in the newspaper, which stated applications were welcome from everyone, which gave me the nudge to apply.

“I attended a taster event to see if I could meet the physical requirements to join before applying. I was told I would need around ten weeks of training to meet the fitness requirements, however the application deadline was three weeks away. I’ve always been interested in physical fitness so thought I would up my training for those three weeks and see how I got on. I would run every morning, cycle to the gym and go for a swim. When the fitness tests came around, I passed.”

After finishing her initial 14-week training at Reigate in Surrey, Nicola began her firefighting career at Huntingdon Fire Station where she spent four years before a spell at the Service’s training centre. Her next 14 years were spent at Dogsthorpe Fire Station in Peterborough, after which she moved to Wisbech.

Australia then came calling for Nicola and her family, where they attempted to settle into a new life. However family ties to the UK were too strong and they returned after six months. Having taken the career break, Nicola joined Ely Fire Station, before returning to Peterborough, this time to Stanground Fire Station. After seven years Nicola made her final move back to her hometown station of Wisbech.

Nicola has also balanced raising two children while serving the community, a challenge helped enormously by her parents.

She said: “I am tremendously grateful to my parents for their support, both with childcare and my firefighting career. I remember them being there to look after our son from the age of six months as I returned to operational duties. I must also thank the parents of the children that attended dance classes and rugby training for their help with transporting my two while I was on duty.

“The conditions for mothers returning to work were very different to how they are now, which is certainly a positive thing for those starting their careers now but also thinking of having a family.”

One of Nicola’s career highlights was organising a memorial for Firefighter John Humphries, who tragically lost his life in the line of duty in 1989. Working with the local council and John’s family, she arranged for a permanent, public memorial under the Fire Brigade Union’s Red Plaque Scheme on Bishop’s Road in Peterborough. The unveiling event was attended by hundreds of current and retired members of staff and dignitaries, on the 30th anniversary of John’s death.

Nicola concluded: “After all these years, the part of the job that I still enjoy to this day is driving the fire engine, it really is something I will miss. I also love and will certainly miss working as part of a close team where we look after each other. I won’t however miss wearing hot fire kit on a warm summers day spending much of the day, which is one of the only downsides of being a firefighter.

“There are so many people that I have worked with, either at stations or at incidents, that have helped, supported and encouraged me during my career, which I am very grateful for. Being a firefighter has certainly been an amazing journey for me and I would recommend it to anyone that is thinking about joining.”

Chief Fire Officer Chris Strickland said: “Nicola has been an outstanding firefighter throughout her career and I am sorry to see her retire. She should be immensely proud of what she has achieved, both personally and for women in the fire service, challenging the perceptions of both staff and the public.

“Being the first at something is always a challenge, but this never phased Nicola. She has helped pave the way to make the Service inclusive for women and all under represented groups.

“I know she will be missed, not just on her station but by staff across the Service. I wish her all the best in her retirement.”