From ordinary teenager to heroic trailblazer - the Norfolk girl who became Britain’s first full time female fire fighter
PUBLISHED: 06:28 07 April 2017
Jo Reynolds’ remarkable story of burning passion and determination, and lives saved and lost
Jo was just 17 when she signed up with Norfolk Fire Service. Within weeks she was completing energy-sapping climbs and runs, handling heavy hoses, learning how to quench flames, cut open cars, and deal with anything from trapped kittens to chemical spills and suicides.
No concessions were made during the tough training regime which turned teenager Jo Reynolds into the first female full-time firefighter in the country.
It was 1982 when the girl who had dreamed of fighting fires as a child, after watching firemen tackle a blaze at her family home, reported to force headquarters in Wymondham.
The story of her transformation from ordinary teenage girl into a highly-trained fire fighter is told in her first book Fire Woman, the extraordinary story of Britain’s first female firefighter.
Jo was often told she should write a book about her experiences, but it was only last year that she finally began jotting down the memories and anecdotes which had entertained friends and family for more than three decades.
Fire Woman is not only the story of how she became a fire fighter, but also a coming of age tale. Alongside the emergency call-outs, the forest fires, the blazes in homes and factories, the traffic accidents and animal rescues, are the friends and boyfriends, and a series of intense laughs, loves and losses.
Jo does not shy away from retelling a misadventure in passion which had become an anecdote she found was still being repeated to this day. Neither does she flinch from the heart-wrenching grief of having to deal with the deaths of friends and colleagues. “Some of the chapters I was laughing, then I’d start crying and couldn’t stop,” she said.
After initial training at Wymondham, Jo was based in Thetford and the book is an atmospheric evocation of Norfolk in the early 1980s – even down to the music, with each chapter named for a different song.
When she passed the training course, the first woman ever to do so, she became a bit of a celebrity, but the book ends with a newly married Jo heading off to travel the world and, with a few interludes back in Britain, that is what she has been doing ever since.
“We did some incredible travelling!” she said. “We went to the Amazon, Peru, the High Andes where we met up with friends from Oxford University who were doing altitude drug testing. And then we met them again on Everest and got involved with helping with the first ever Everest marathon.
Eventually she returned to Thetford, where life was not quite so glamorous. “It felt a bit awkward, trying to go back to the fire service,” she said. “Although I had really loved it at the time, and they gave me so much love.”
Instead she got a job at the Jeyes bleach factory and then set up a business which sourced homeware for big supermarkets. Together with a business partner, she tracked down ceramics, or the perfect basket for Christmas gift hampers for Marks and Spencer or Harrods. It involved opening an office in China and Jo was off round the world again.
“Every time I turn around my life seems to be heading in a completely different direction!” she says.
When she sold the business it gave her enough money to travel again and over the past 10 years she has lived in countries including Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, working as a television presenter for a Thai lifestyle TV programme, a wardrobe assistant, a location scout, a model for a health resort. When her best friend got involved in some charity work it led to Jo’s first foray into writing – visiting the Philippines after the devastating typhoon of 2013 and Nepal after the terrible earthquake of 2015 and writing accounts of the suffering. “I interviewed people, got their back stories and presented it in a way that people could connect with,” she says.
For the past year she has been living with her brother in Norwich, writing the book and catching up with many of the old friends who feature. She reconnected with old bosses, colleagues and friends and would love to think that her book might inspire other women to consider a career as a fire fighter.
“I do love Norwich,” she said, “But I genuinely don’t know what’s next. I haven’t really got a home! Some of my things are here and some in boxes in Cambodia!
“I have got an idea that I should take over from Bear Grylls and do something about inspiring women of the world, but that’s only just occurred to me.”
Right now she is concentrating on the publication of her first book, and on being ready when the next challenge arrives.
“I’m not scared of anything!” says Britain’s first full-time female fire fighter.”
Fire Woman, the extraordinary story of Britain’s first female firefighter, published by Michael O’Mara Books. £9.99