“You know you can’t wear make-up on the job and you’ll need to cut your hair,” said one.
“What if you get married?” asked another.
Griffiths kept calm, replied politely and wondered what business of theirs it was if she got married. She got through the interview, passed a written test and began training.
The 11 new female recruits were dispersed among crews but the woman with whom Griffiths embarked on the 16-week training left after just two weeks. For her part, Griffiths hired an au pair to look after her two-year-old son and threw herself into the program.
“It was physically hard,” she says. “I didn’t get it as bad as some women, but there was a lot of bullying going on, a lot of shouting and screaming and threatening people. There were some very mean, vindictive instructors. If they didn’t like you they’d do their utmost to get you out.
“I was determined not to fail though. The more I realised they didn’t really want women there, the more determined I became to succeed.”
During training, women stuck together, meeting in the mornings to chat and laugh while they got into their uniform. Sometimes they’d catch up in the locker rooms at lunch time, an activity that, to some men, was apparently suggestive of terrifying depravity and coven-like secrecy.
“Senior managers would come into the locker room at lunch time saying ‘have you got any men in here?’” Griffiths says. “We were having our lunch. I don’t know what they thought; that the only thing on our mind would be to fraternise and have sex with the men at lunch time? We couldn’t possibly be doing this because we needed a job. No, we were taking men’s jobs or trying to smear a man. Actually, all we wanted to do was earn a decent wage.”
Slowly, however, men who were training alongside Griffiths were coming around, grudgingly offering condescending praise.
“About six weeks into training, one of the men said, ‘We didn’t think you should do it or could do it, but we were wrong’,” Griffiths says. “I thought, well who are you to judge? I’m here on the same basis as you are.
“People were inquisitive about us, even if they didn’t like us or were suspicious of us. There was an element of wanting to find out why we chose to do this job.”
Griffiths finished her training and was stationed at London’s Manchester Square fire station. The team there were welcoming.
“Everyone in station was nice and they didn’t harass or bully me,” she says. “Other women [elsewhere] were treated terribly though. I heard about women being ostracised or being spoken to in derogatory ways using horrible terms for women. Women reported being looked at inappropriately or having men peeking at them in them showers. The retention rate of female firefighters was terrible in those days.”
It was a while before Griffiths encountered a big fire. As she would discover, much of the job involved cleaning and maintaining equipment, helping members of the public get in or out of buildings and dealing with the litany of minor catastrophes we expect firefighters to fix.
Two years into her service, in 1987, Griffiths would be confronted with her first major incident. On November 18, a fire broke out at King's Cross St. Pancras tube station, beginning on an escalator and rapidly filling the station with smoke. Thirty one people were killed and 100 were taken to hospital with injuries. Thirty fire crews were deployed and Griffiths was among the 150 firefighters sent into the smoke-filled Underground.
“As we descended the steps into smoke, they were bringing out Colin Townsley, one of London’s most respected station officers,” Griffiths says. “Sadly, they were unable to resuscitate him. It brought home how vulnerable we all are and how dangerous fire is. Situations can overtake you.”
The deaths in the King’s Cross fire wouldn’t be the only ones Griffiths would see in her 30-year career but she would also be responsible for rescuing numerous people. “I’ve been able to get there through the smoke and bring people out,” she says. “It feels great.” It is knowledge of procedures and, most of all, trust in your colleagues, that makes the job possible, she says.
As Griffiths ascended through the ranks, becoming station manager at Shadwell fire station, she acquired a reputation for being opinionated. (“I’ve always been gobby,” she says.) The bullying and harassment of women needed addressing, as did the lack of practical facilities such as dorms and showers, and Griffiths wasn’t afraid to speak up.
In 2010, Griffiths was labelled a “trailblazer” and awarded the Queen’s Fire Service Medal at Buckingham Palace. It was a triumph, but a week later Griffiths was suspended from service, accused of harassing fellow firefighters who broke a strike over the threat of mass sackings and concern about shift patterns. After a groundswell of support from her colleagues and several months of fighting, Griffiths was reinstated.
Griffiths’ anger over inequality was not dampened and she continued her career-long involvement with the Fire Brigades Union's Women's Committee. While things have progressed from the days when female firefighters were regarded as hose-wielding harpies, Griffiths believes the road to equality is still long.
“Things have changed; people are more accepting that men and women can work together,” she says. “A lot of younger people don’t see it as strange that a woman wants to do this job. But when I speak to colleagues, particularly outside London, it’s clear there’s a lot to do. Concessions have been made for women but they haven’t been heartily embraced. Firefighting should be a non-gender-specific job. There are still big issues around maternity, childcare and facilities for women.”
Today is Griffiths’ last day in the fire service so she’ll be stepping away from the furnace of equality campaigning, but it’s a 30-year service she looks back on with pride.
“It doesn’t feel real that I’ll never go back there again,” she says. “I met some amazing people and really enjoyed my time with my final watch, Paddington White.
But it’s a very privileged feeling. I’ve seen colleagues killed before they get to this age; not everybody reaches 54.
“I’m proud that I got through it all and came out the other end. I’m not saying it was easy but I got through and I challenged things. I didn’t let people get away with everything. I didn’t compromise myself.”