Leaders in Conversation with Anni Townend

Leaders in Conversation with Dawn Whittaker, Chief Fire Officer

June 16, 2021 Anni Townend Episode 21
Leaders in Conversation with Anni Townend
Leaders in Conversation with Dawn Whittaker, Chief Fire Officer
Show Notes

In this episode Anni talks to Dawn Whittaker, Chief Fire Officer and CEO of East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service, as well as NFCC lead for Drowning Prevention and Water Safety.

Anni and Dawn talk about how early experiences ignited Dawn’s passion for safety and why as a leader she is committed to nurturing both physical and psychological safety.

Background and career influences

Growing up on a farm in Wales, Dawn learned to be pragmatic and safety-conscious at an early age. Along with her sister, she was a keen member of the Brownies, Guides and Rangers - always actively involved in team and community projects. She believes this to be a trait inherited from parents and grandparents.

However, her real interest in fire safety was sparked on an Outward Bound course, whilst working for a company. Dawn was frustrated at the organiser’s failure to conduct any health safety briefings about fire exits and so after checking local procedures, she undertook a fire safety drill. “I think they all thought I'd lost the plot,” she reflects. 

In terms of her interest in water safety, it was a near drowning experience aged just 16 that had a lasting impact. Dawn is now the national lead for water safety and drowning prevention for the National Fire Chiefs Council in the UK, heading up the Be Water Aware campaign. The aim is to promote safe use of recreational water spaces.

Dawn wasn’t always within the Fire Service however. In her early career she worked in the retail sector with The John Lewis Partnership,  before moving into a managerial performance role at a County Council. Both roles led her to develop a passion for quality customer service and communication - something she has carried into her role at the Fire Service for over 17 years. 

Fighting fires during a pandemic

Dawn discusses the impact of the pandemic and praises her team who have worked tirelessly.  In addition to provision of standard services, the Fire Service has been collaborating with partners like the Coastguard and supporting the local Ambulance Service with much-needed drivers through the pandemic

However, she admits the pandemic has been tough on the service. Not least because it meant finding new ways to engage with the public. But also because many of her staff members have had to manage their duties alongside the emotional, financial and physical burden of Covid-19.

“People might think firefighters, and our staff are all heroes and superheroes, and superhuman, but, do you know what, we're just people,” says Dawn.

Inspirational leaders and inclusivity

Dawn reveals the many leaders who have inspired her journey, including colleagues from John Lewis and existing and retired Fire Service leaders like David Archer and Bruce Hoad, both of whom she praises for their commitment to driving inclusivity and equality in the service.

Driving diversity is something close to Dawn's heart. She talks about being a role model and "holding a mirror up".

Listen to the episode to discover:

  • How childhood role models can shape actions in adult life
  • Community values and teamwork
  • Supporting employee wellbeing during the pandemic and beyond
  • The importance of collaboration in the community
  • Why inclusivity and diversity is essential to the future workforce 
  • Celebrating human differences and the value these can bring
  • Four key things all leaders should think about to unlock their potential

Discover more and connect with Dawn

For more information on East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service visit  esfrs.org

You can connect with Dawn Whittaker directly on LinkedIn.