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7 September 2022

Sabrina Cohen-Hatton: The firefighter using psychology to prevent disaster

The fire chief and behavioural psychologist on how her time sleeping rough has helped her save lives.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Just before her 16th birthday, Sabrina Cohen-Hatton left her childhood home in Newport, south Wales, to live on the streets. During the following two years of sleeping rough, in and out of derelict buildings and a van, she learned something that would shape her future career as a firefighter, and transform the way first responders work in the UK today.

To keep herself safe, the homeless teenager – whose family life had become too difficult after her father died of a brain tumour when she was nine – became “hyper-vigilant”. Mapping dangerous scenarios in her head, she built “mental jigsaws”: each piece being another potential threat.

Every night, before bedding down, she would identify escape routes (a doorway, windows) and set traps for potential intruders: old paint cans she’d found in a skip, stacked up near her exit route to pull down behind her if she had to flee. Piles of old newspapers gathered nearby to throw at an attacker. A heavy piece of wood tucked up beside her as she slept to use as a weapon, just in case.

[See also: Mick Lynch: “Starmer’s Labour could be another version of the Tories”]

It was a sensible strategy. One night a man burned her arm with a cigarette and tore up her GCSE textbooks in an anti-Semitic attack (Cohen-Hatton is Jewish; her father was born in Israel to a Moroccan Jewish family). In spite of this, she passed with good grades and left school at 16. After bar work and stints in a ready-meal factory, aged 18 she became the first female firefighter in Risca, south Wales, in 2001.

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Now Cohen-Hatton, 39, is at the highest rank in the fire services, serving as chief fire officer at West Sussex Fire and Rescue since 2019. Leading the major incident rooms during the 2017 Westminster and Finsbury Park mosque terror attacks, she also ran the welfare centre the morning after the Grenfell Tower fire that same year.

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She still creates imaginary disasters in her head. “I’m better now than I used to be, but I am constantly, constantly hyper-vigilant. From a firefighting perspective, it’s been really good. But day to day, it can lead me to feel quite anxious,” she said when we met at her newly renovated house off a cricket green in the Surrey village of Thames Ditton.

The gleaming marble-topped kitchen island, wine fridge and Damien Hirst limited-edition print of cherry blossom, bursting with colour beneath the glass ceiling, looked like a symbolic departure from her early life. Padding around in bare feet and a long, black, V-neck jumper dress, Cohen-Hatton kept her Mexican hairless dog Luther close by her side. Completing the scene was her chatty 12-year-old daughter Gabriella (“Mum once crashed a fire engine!”) and her husband, Mike, a fire station commander. They met during an uneventful Saturday shift in Newport 17 years ago. The day of our encounter was their 15th wedding anniversary; a large bouquet of pink and white flowers decorated the kitchen counter.

As a 5ft 1in woman, Cohen-Hatton still faces stereotypes. “You say ‘firefighter’ and people have these images of Tom Hardy coming in with his top off holding a puppy. You’re more likely to see a firefighter who looks like Ed Balls than Tom Hardy! But I know I’m the last person someone’s thinking of.” (A petite crewmate is vital, however – as Cohen-Hatton explained, she may not be chosen to sledgehammer a hole through a door, but she’d be the first to be sent through it.)

As well as 12-hour working days and on-call shifts as the duty gold commander for major incidents, she is writing a book about how gender bias impacts success. It cites a study in which parents were more likely to encourage their sons than daughters to play independently on a playground fire pole.

As she fought fires, Cohen-Hatton learned that the job depended more on the mind than on the body. “People think about it as really physical, that you’ve got to be 6ft 10in, strapping, with a chiselled chin,” she said laughing. “The reality is, to be a good firefighter you need to be good under pressure, calm, decisive, a team player, a really good problem-solver.”

Human error causes 80 per cent of industrial accidents, including in fire and rescue. She recalled one call-out early in her career. A colleague had been severely burned – and there was a one-in-four chance that it was her partner, Mike. On the four-minute, 37-second journey to the scene, she forgot her usual tasks: preparing a trauma pack, ascertaining the nature of the fire. (The injured officer, it turned out, was Mike’s crewmate, who survived after a long recovery.)

“It was absolutely horrific, my heart was in my mouth. I thought we were about to become one of the people we work with every day, who have had a bowl of cornflakes and a completely normal morning, only for something to happen and their whole world gets turned upside down.”

Cohen-Hatton was interested in how stress had clouded her focus and this inspired her innovative research into the psychology of decision-making in high-risk situations. From 2010 to 2013, alongside work, she took night classes and completed a PhD in behavioural neuroscience at Cardiff University. She wanted to explore the “decision traps” fire chiefs fall into under pressure: “tunnel vision” (refusing to deviate from a preferred line of thought), “confirmation bias” (selecting information that matches your assumptions) and “decision inertia” (when you freeze and can’t commit to a choice).

She found only 20 per cent of decisions made by fire chiefs were “analytical”; the other 80 per cent were “intuitive” (or based on “gut feeling”). To improve this, she created a way to “impose the conscious on the subconscious”: the “decision control process”. Using Cohen-Hatton’s model, incident commanders rapidly ask themselves three questions before making a critical decision: why am I doing this? What do I expect to happen? How do the benefits of this decision outweigh the risks? This process reflected the “mental jigsaw” she envisaged when she used to sleep rough.

The National Fire Chiefs Council included her three-point test in its national guidelines in 2015. (Although, she told the Grenfell inquiry last year, a “very conservative culture” at the London Fire Brigade meant it did not take on the new process.) Her research has also been adopted by all UK emergency services through the Joint Emergency Services Interoperability Programme. “It translates across any industry,” she said. “It could even be in your household: the experiences and expectations people have can have a profound impact on the way your brain works and how you make a decision subsequently.”

Described in her 2019 manual-cum-memoir, The Heat of the Moment, Cohen-Hatton’s early findings have been used to help train firefighters. They are now taught about the psychology behind their decisions.

With her research ongoing, Cohen-Hatton described how in her latest study she took blood samples from firefighters before and after attending an emergency to measure their body’s response to stress. She discovered the more unusual (and stressful) the incident, the more likely her subjects were to “revert to the rule book, even when the rules didn’t fit”. A notable, and tragic, example could be the response to the Grenfell disaster, when the tower’s residents were advised to “stay put” – a protocol the authorities clung to as an “article of faith”, according to the Grenfell inquiry.

Unlike most trainee firefighters today, Cohen-Hatton’s own education in anticipating risks took place on the streets. “I know how horrible it feels to hit your lowest point; it felt like there was no escape,” she told me. “So when things did get better, I wanted to make them better for other people too.”

[See also: How psychedelics change lives]

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This article appears in the 07 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Liz Truss Unchained