Although the first woman to become a full-time firefighter didn’t arrive until 1982, women had served in the fire service as auxiliary members during the Second World War and had been employed by private brigades even before that.
At the FBU conference in 1939 members crucially voted to allow women in the Auxiliary Fire Service to be members of the union. This was a ground-breaking decision by the FBU at a time of great discrimination among Chief Fire Officers towards women working as firefighters.
The AFS was particularly important during wartime when there was a much higher demand on the fire service. Set up only a year before, the AFS launched a recruitment drive to attract women, since many men had been conscripted into the army.
They joined in their droves. At its peak in 1943/44, when the AFS was taken under government control to become the National Fire Service (NFS), almost 90,000 women were involved either full-time or part-time. The union appointed women to organise and recruit others into the union, while looking after their interests.
In March 1943 a special women’s conference was organised by the union, focussing particularly on issues of equal pay. Female membership of the FBU reached a peak of 8,200 in 1943. After the war, however, their number dropped to around 500, mainly working in control, as many had gone back to their previous lives and jobs.
Women worked as drivers, despatch riders or in control. They were not expected to work on the frontline putting out fires, but sometimes, though it was not much reported, they unofficially attended fires during air raids, even during the Blitz.
Twenty-five women working for the AFS lost their lives during the war. They are commemorated on the national firefighters’ memorial opposite St. Paul’s.