Friday 12 April 2019

Risky business: The extraordinary life of firefighter Sabrina Cohen-Hatton

Homeless as a teenager, Sabrina Cohen-Hatton has spent the last 18 years dealing with everything from fires to car crashes and terrorist attacks. Who better to write a book about life-or-death situations?

Early in her firefighting career, Sabrina Cohen-Hatton was on a shift, rushing towards an emergency call. A crew member had been badly injured. Her partner, Mike, was a member of the four-man team. Was he hurt? Was he alive? For the next four minutes and 37 seconds she tried to retain her composure. At the scene, she found that the injured firefighter wasn’t Mike (now her husband). The wave of relief that washed over her was followed immediately by another – of guilt, having felt relief at another colleague’s ill fortune. That second wave changed the course of her life.

Cohen-Hatton began to research risks to firefighters. She was aghast to find that 80% of industrial accidents were caused by human error. Why was so much danger avoidable? How could risk be reduced? These questions dogged her and, unable to find the answers, in 2010 she embarked on a part-time doctorate in behavioural neuroscience at Cardiff university. She began her PhD research the day she gave birth (she used to read her two-week-old daughter neuroscience papers to help her sleep) and completed it while she worked full-time as a firefighter.

“Juggling” doesn’t begin to cover the rush between laboratory, fire station and home. “I was regularly surviving on three or four hours sleep,” she says, sipping earl grey tea. We are in a cafe in Weybridge, Surrey, where Cohen-Hatton lives. She doesn’t like to sleep for more than six hours even now, but that regime seems to suit her because she speaks quickly and laughs loudly. It was the two careers together that allowed her to probe the maelstrom of information and emotion in which incident commanders make life-critical decisions at speed. Now she has written her first book. The Heat of the Moment places the reader at the centre of life-or-death situations – some real, some simulated – and sets out a mini-charter for the sorts of decisions most of us hope we shall never have to make, such as who to save first, and when instinct should override procedure.

 ‘I had an issue with authority’ … Sabrina Cohen-Hatton.
Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian
Cohen-Hatton is 36, and has been a firefighter for 18 years. She is currently deputy assistant commissioner of Surrey fire brigade and has herself answered these crucial questions in complex settings, from car crashes to bombings (she led the fire brigade coordination centre during the Finsbury Park terror attack in 2017). Her research has isolated the “decision traps” that can lead an incident commander to suboptimal choices. She regards her own decision trap as “a natural disposition to overthink things”.

In order to navigate these traps, six years ago she devised the Decision Control Process, a three-point test by which a commander can evaluate a decision before implementing it: What do I want to achieve? What do I expect to happen as a result? Do benefits outweigh risks? In 2015, it was included in the National Fire Chiefs Council National Operational Guidelines for decision control processes, though it is up to individual fire services whether or not to use it.

It would be interesting to hear how Cohen-Hatton’s work, which won an award, might help to frame the London Fire Brigade’s response to the Grenfell Tower fire – particularly as she has focused on the tension between instinct and procedure. Also, for many years London Fire Brigade has used a different method called the Decision Making Model, but is “fully aware”, as a spokesman for the London Fire Brigade puts it, of Cohen-Hatton’s guidance. In any case, Grenfell is absent from The Heat of the Moment – no high rises are included in the book. Cohen-Hatton, who worked for London Fire Brigade at the time of the fire in June 2017 (her position in Surrey is a secondment ) did not attend on the night, although she ran the welfare centre in the morning. She is unable to talk about Grenfell, as the inquiry is ongoing.

Cohen-Hatton has overcome substantial adversity to reach a position of seniority in the fire service, and The Heat of the Moment is also a memoir. Her father died when she was nine – the same age as her own daughter, Gabriella, is now. As a teenager in Newport, south-east Wales, Cohen-Hatton was homeless for about two years, an experience she hid for a long time. “I became afraid of anyone ever knowing about it,” she says.

Although she prefers not to explain why she left home shortly before her 16th birthday, her mother looms in the book as another omission. She is mentioned only once, when she helped Cohen-Hatton’s father into their sunny back garden on the day he died. “We still have a difficult relationship,” Cohen-Hatton says. “It’s fair to say that when people go to war with their demons, everyone around them gets hit with the shrapnel.”

 By the time I was 17, I had been to seven funerals of people I knew who had died on the streets. I thought, this can’t be me. I can’t stay in this life
Her father’s death heralded a turbulent teenage experience and the extraordinary story of those years and her subsequent rise through the ranks has been optioned by the television production company that made Broadchurch.

Cohen-Hatton loves the metaphor of a jigsaw for the eternal piecing together of information that is an incident commander’s life, but a reader trying to do the same with the memoir elements of her book may struggle. Not all the pieces are present and presumably the missing ones are the result of her own risk analysis.

When she was homeless, she spent some nights on the street, some in derelict buildings. These squats were better than hostels. “I could make a safe space, control it,” she says. She knew the exits, the threats. The calculations she made each night did not differ greatly from her incident commanders’ Decision Control Process.

She washed her hair in the toilets of the Pen and Wig pub in Newport and revised in “quiet corners and shop doorways”. She made national news when she turned up for her GCSEs with dyed red hair, a pierced lip and a dog, and was required by her headteacher to sit her exams in a wig for infringing uniform policy. Somehow she managed to pass with an A star, six As and three Bs. “It wasn’t as good as I should have achieved,” she says.

“I went through a period of massive self-loathing. I can remember looking in the mirror and just hating what I felt I’d turned into. By 17, I’d been to seven funerals of people I knew who had died on the streets. I thought, I can’t … I have to do something. This can’t be me. I can’t stay in this life.”

She was selling the Big Issue, but in Newport competition was fierce. At best she made £15 a day. “So I used to get the bus at 6am and go to Monmouth. The town basically adopted me. I’d sit there from seven o’clock in the morning to seven o’clock at night until I’d sold everything.”

After 18 months, she had saved enough to pay £700 deposit and rent on a tiny flat in Risca, a town far enough away that she wouldn’t be recognised. She did bar work, computer work, worked in a ready-meal factory. Risca had a part-time fire station which sharpened Cohen-Hatton’s thinking. She had spent years “effectively being a ghost, where people walk past as if you’re not there, not part of society”. She “wanted to do something where I could help other people”.

Social work was out. “Growing up, I thought of them as the enemy.”

Police? She laughs. “I had too much of an issue with authority.”

So fire it was. She passed the interview and became Risca’s first female firefighter.

A happy ending, then?

“Awful!” she says. They called her names like “split arse”, blanked her or talked about her behind her back, and filled her boots with rubbish. “I would have people regularly say, ‘No offence to you, I just don’t agree with it [female firefighters].’”

Is it like that now? “It’s not,” she says. But her seniority will afford some protection and I wonder how the experience differs for 18-year-old women joining the fire service today. “I am really confident that they wouldn’t have that same experience – because we’ve done so much work,” she says. “We know what the world is like and we are doing our best not just to change the fire service but society.”

One small place to start could be renaming Fireman Sam. Her daughter, who would like to be an astronaut firefighter, putting out fires in space, used to rail at the TV, “It’s not fireman, it’s firefighter!” I’d guess she heard that from someone else. “I 100% think it should be Firefighter Sam. Language makes a difference,” she says.

(Source: The Guardian)

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