From homeless teen to Chief Fire Officer

From homeless teen to Chief Fire Officer

For the Jewish Chronicle August 1 2019

Most of us, I would guess, cannot imagine what it takes to be a member of Britain’s front-line emergency service, our firefighters. The visceral fear we are taught relating to fire, when we are tiny children, usually extends for our entire lives.

And so Sabrina Cohen-Hatton is doubly unusual. She is one of the 3.1 per cent of British firefighters who are women, and probably one of a handful who are Jewish. This month Sabrina, 36, was appointed Chief Fire Officer in West Sussex, making her almost certainly the only Jewish woman CFO in Britain.

Yet as her new book, The Heat of the Moment, makes clear, her start in life was anything but promising, from her father’s early death from a brain tumour when she was just nine years old, to living on the streets and being the subject of an antisemitic attack when she was 15.

It’s not the start any of us would wish for ourselves or our families. Yet Cohen-Hatton, speaking to me on a family holiday in Israel, has somehow managed to turn this misery into a positive — because she believes that the very watchfulness she acquired in learning to live on the streets has helped her as a firefighter. She says that “years of constantly looking for danger has made me incredibly hyper-vigilant. It was helpful then, and it has certainly helped in my working life now.”

Sabrina Cohen, as she then was, was born and brought up in Wales, near south Cardiff, the daughter of “a mother with Jewish heritage” and an Israeli father, one of five siblings. Her parents met in London and moved to Wales, where her mother was from, to bring up Sabrina and her brother, who is a year younger.

The family did not mix with the wider Welsh Jewish community or attend synagogue. But her father’s Israeli family, either siblings or his parents, would regularly come to stay (her grandmother with “a suitcase of wonderful food”) so young Sabrina and her brother Leon were in no doubt about who they were. Her father, she says sadly, is buried in a local Jewish cemetery where swastikas are regularly daubed on the gravestones. “We had to get a security key to get into the cemetery,” she recalls, “all just to protect our dead”.

Her father’s family had lived for generations in Morocco until they were caught up in violent anti-Jewish riots in 1948. Her grandmother was attacked with a machete and left for dead until sought out and rescued by her husband. The couple and their three-year-old son fled to Israel where Sabrina’s father was born, their first sabra child. Her grandmother, now 96, still lives in Israel and she tries to spend as much time with her as she can.

She won’t go into the circumstances which caused her to leave home and be sleeping rough on the streets. Whatever it was, it was traumatic — but her school knew she was not living at home. “They didn’t have the level of pastoral care for me that they should have done”, she says. “It was deeply disappointing at the time and it is disappointing to look back on, today.”

What her school did do — unfortunately — was oblige the teenage Sabrina to wear a wig when she was taking her GCSE exams, because she had dyed her own hair red and they felt she would be a distraction to other pupils. She also had a lip-ring which they made her cover with plasters. She said at the time: “I can’t see why red hair makes any difference to my ability to sit and pass exams”, which seems a reasonable response.

In the end, she says, she took the wig off the minute the school invigilator said the exam was under way. “It was hot and itchy and I hated it. But finally, I sat the exams in isolation, which is what they should have done in the first place”.

In a searing passage in her book she talks about sleeping in a derelict building while she was at the end of her school career. “At that point in my life my education was the one thing I had any control over. It wasn’t much but it was mine.”

She had nowhere to keep her school textbooks and — desperate not to go into care — did not want to draw attention to herself by asking her teachers for somewhere to store them. Instead, she hid the books in old boxes in the building where she and others were sleeping.

One day one of the other rough sleepers found her books, each labelled with her “very Jewish surname” — and he attacked her, holding a lit cigarette to her arm and spewing antisemitic abuse. When he brandished a broken bottle in her face she froze and was eventually dragged away by a friend from the building.

Cohen-Hatton calls this “decision paralysis” and it informs much of her research and thinking about her work in the fire service, and about how people behave when they are caught in fires.

“Every day on the streets” — where she spent more than two years — “I would wake up and it would be the worst day of my life. When you are a fire-fighter you are dealing with people going through, in many cases, the worst day of their lives. They trust fire-fighters — and I wanted to rescue them, because I knew what they were experiencing.”

Her first house fire was in a place in the south Wales valleys, Risca. “I remember feeling a huge sense of responsibility going into the fire”, she says. “We have a lot of training and I was wearing breathing apparatus. I felt like an alien. But at the same time you know that people need you”.

She was saved by a job selling The Big Issue, which helped her get the money for somewhere to live. She’s now an ambassador for the magazine.

Fire-fighting has been “a wonderful career”. She has been able to study — she now has a PhD for her research into decision-making in the emergency services — and she met her husband, Mike Hatton, in the Fire Service. They have a young daughter, Gabriella. In her book she writes that Mike’s grandfather escaped, twice, from Bergen-Belsen and she hopes that their daughter will have inherited the family “grit”.

But Gabriella is still only nine and I wondered how her parents explain the dangers of their jobs and whether they would recommend the Fire Service as a career.

The answer is yes. “She has a real sense of empathy and she wants to make everything right. Sometimes she says she wants to be an astronaut, sometimes a fire-fighter but mostly she wants to be a doctor. I tell her she can be anything she wants but going into the Fire Service is actually a safe career choice and we are incredibly well-trained and well looked after.

“I have been involved in fire service responses to terror attacks and I’ve spoken to Gabriella and told her, ‘Mummy is safe.’ Almost the first thing she said was to worry about the victims; she even packed a bag [of toys] for children who were hurt in the Manchester Arena attack.”

She stresses that not all her work is operational — the actual physical business of putting out fires. A lot of her time is spent in “preventative” work, trying to change people’s behaviour so that fires don’t happen. She is also keen to try to change the stereotypes of what fire-fighters are like, laughing that more of her colleagues “resemble Ed Balls than they do Tom Hardy or these calendar pin-up types.”

It’s a relief to hear her report that she has never experienced antisemitism in the Fire Service. “I have experienced animated discussions about Israel, though — and I don’t think people are fully aware of the situation”. Almost certainly the forthright Cohen-Hatton will put the record straight.

We are accustomed to thinking of “Fireman Sam” and his colleagues as heroes, courageous despite the sometimes terrible circumstances which they face. Does she think of herself as brave?

“I think there is a difference between being fearless and being brave. You can still be brave in spite of being afraid.”

But in such situations, Sabrina’s hyper-awareness of danger kicks in and she coolly weighs up the options before deciding what to do.

Let’s put it this way. If you have the grave misfortune to be involved in a fire, or a terrorist attack, you would want someone like Sabrina Cohen-Hatton to be working that day. She wants, she says, to look after people and make them safe. I tease her that these are her Jewish mother instincts kicking in and she agrees. Perhaps that’s what the emergency services need — a tough Jewish mother in every fire station.

The Heat of the Moment is published by Doubleday

  • 1 August, 2019