Meet Norfolk’s first female fire fighter Jo Reynolds

Josephine Reynolds is part of the team fighting a grass fire in Brandon

Josephine Reynolds is part of the team fighting a grass fire in Brandon - Credit: Archant

Jo Reynolds was the first female fire fighter in Norfolk. She talks to Rowan Mantell about her extraordinary story of burning passion and dogged determination, saving lives and heart-wrenching loss

Jo Reynolds. Picture Alan Kozlowski

Jo Reynolds. Picture Alan Kozlowski - Credit: Alan Kozlowski

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 alongside the men.

No concessions were made in the tough training regime which turned teenager Jo Reynolds into the first female full time fire-fighter in Norfolk – and, outside wartime, possibly the first in the country.

It was 1982 when the girl who had dreamed of becoming a fire fighter 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 fearless fire fighter is told in her first book Fire Woman.

Fire Woman by Josephine Reynolds. Picture: Alan Kozlowski

Fire Woman by Josephine Reynolds. Picture: Alan Kozlowski - Credit: Alan Kozlowski

“Friends said, ‘Jo, you’ve got a great story here!’ and I was, ‘I don’t see it,’” said Jo. But she was eventually persuaded to begin writing down the memories and anecdotes which had entertained friends and family for more than three decades.

Fire Woman is also a coming of age tale. Alongside 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.

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“Some of the chapters I was laughing, then I’d start crying and couldn’t stop,” she says.

The book is also an atmospheric evocation of Norfolk in the early 1980s – even down to the music, with each chapter named for a different song.

Jo was based in Thetford, where she became a bit of a celebrity, but the book ends with a newly-married Jo heading off to travel the world. 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 bleach factory and then set up a business sourcing homeware for big supermarkets – with an office in China.

“Every time I turn around my life seems to be heading in a completely different direction!” she says.

For the past 10 years she has lived in countries including Thailand and Cambodia, and found jobs as a television presenter for a Thai lifestyle TV programme, a wardrobe assistant, a location scout, a model. When her best friend got involved in some charity work it led to Jo’s first foray into writing – visiting the Philippines after a devastating typhoon and Nepal after an earthquake. “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 her book and catching up with former colleagues and old friends. She would love to think that her story might inspire other women to consider a career as a fire fighter.

So what next for Jo?

“I genuinely don’t know!” she said. But that early training means she is always ready for the next challenge.

Fire Woman, the extraordinary story of Britain’s first female firefighter is published by Michael O’Mara Books. £9.99.