"IN MANY ways I wanted to do something where I could rescue other people in a way no one rescued me.”

Picture a teenage girl walking the streets from dawn to dusk, in rain or shine, clutching a bundle of Big Issue magazines.

She’s been on the streets since she was 15 and is trying desperately to make enough money to claw her way out of the poverty which has blighted her life since the death of her father.

It’s easy to imagine a string of fates, none of them happy, but chief fire officer at West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service is probably not on the list.

Meet Dr Sabrina Cohen-Hatton. It’s 21 years later and she has a long career with the fire service under her belt, not to mention a PhD in psychology.

She now she faces the task of dragging the county’s fire service out of the depths of a frankly awful inspectorate report.

One week into the job, Dr Cohen-Hatton said she intended to present the inspectorate with a much-improved picture over the coming years.

The service was rated “requires improvement” overall with two areas – protecting the public through fire regulation and ensuring fairness and promoting diversity – rated inadequate.

Dr Cohen-Hatton’s view is that if they “get the people element right, everything else falls in behind that”.

She said: “When we look at the findings from that inspection report, particularly around people, I’m really, really keen to get underneath the nub of that problem.

“The report tells us a lot – and that’s so helpful – but we need to go a layer beneath that to really understand the crux of the challenges so that we can try to fix them.”

The fire service knew there were problems long before the report was published and there has been a lot of work going on to address the issues raised.

Dr Cohen-Hatton is keen to stamp on the stereotypical assumption about what a firefighter should look like – most likely male and beefy. She knows she is hardly what people would picture when asked to imagine a firefighter – and that, she said, is part of the problem when it comes to attracting the best people to the service.

It’s a problem not helped by the inspectorate highlighting accusations of bullying among staff due to gender or race.

She said: “That stereotype of what a firefighter is is so strong out there in the public that people who might be the best firefighter that we potentially never had might not even think about joining the fire service as a career because they can’t relate to it.

“Challenging what that stereotype is, both externally so we get the best people, and internally so people all know that they have a place, that they belong here, that we include everybody, that’s so important.”

She acknowledges she did not appear a brilliant prospect when she applied to join the service and finds it amazing it looked past what was on the outside and took her on “on the strength of who they believed I could be”.

She said: “I would also say to people that the kind of skills and qualities you need to be a good firefighter aren’t determined by anything the stereotype might portray.

“It’s about being calm under pressure, it’s about being decisive, it’s about being able to work as part of a team.”