I’m Andrea White and I’m a mum and a fire engineer. I have a fire safety consultancy called A W Fire Ltd and I’m founder of a group called Women Talking Fire.
As you can see from the name choices of my business and the group, I’m a practical person rather than a creative! I originally planned to be a forester and my first degree is primarily in timber and wood science. But I chose instead to go into premises management, then into premises health and safety and from there into fire safety enforcement. I joined the fire safety industry almost 25 years ago and I’ve been learning more about fire safety ever since.
A typical day for me will be working in my office, either helping architects with fire safety aspects and design of new buildings or assisting in legal cases as an expert witness for the Courts. I also go out on site and inspect premises. And I do a significant amount of public speaking at events, either online or in person.
Initially, I joined the fire safety industry out of curiosity, wanting to better understand an enforcer’s perspective on the buildings I used to manage. I found I had a natural aptitude for taking guidance and regulations, explaining it and applying it to buildings.
During the pandemic, I took the opportunity to reflect on my career and think carefully about what I wanted the second half of my career to look like. I realised that financially I could afford to support myself whilst I established the business.
Running my own consultancy was daunting as there were a lot of business-related aspects that I’d never done before. But I knew that if I didn’t try, I’d regret it. The consultancy has now been established for several years and working for myself is one of the best things I’ve done.
The consultancy is constantly busy and I really enjoy the variety of what I do and having the flexibility of working for myself – being able to choose the projects I work on has enabled me to be around more for my son.
I’ve always done a lot of voluntary work in the industry but I wanted to do something more impactful. I thought back to the beginning of my career and how few women there had been in the industry. I realised that I would have really benefitted from a networking and support group for women working in fire safety. And I realised that I didn’t know any other women working in the industry.
Today, around 7% of the technical professionals in fire safety are women, but we still didn’t have a group to bring us together. That’s when the idea of Women Talking Fire was born.
To see Women Talking Fire grow has been so exciting. Not only have we brought 500 women working in the fire safety industry together virtually but we also run in-person events, where we can network, learn together and support each other.
WTF also partner with the major industry exhibitions and provide female speakers and hosts for their stage sessions so we can increase the visibility of women in our industry – “if you can see it, you can be it”.
I think I’ve got to where I am now by being resourceful, determined and persistent. There are times when it’s been challenging, but challenges are learning opportunities and when we learn we grow. So I prefer to see challenges as growth opportunities.
I’m really keen for Women Talking Fire to facilitate the progression of women into more leadership roles in the fire safety industry.
However, probably the most important concept for me right now is diversity of thought – the benefits of having different perspectives, viewpoints and experiences around the decision-making table. I am keen for the fire safety industry to see the tangible benefits of diversity of thought and actively work towards creating the right environment for diversity of thought to flourish. It leads to better outcomes!
I’ve found that being a woman in the fire safety industry makes you more memorable because you look visibly different.
I think there will be many more opportunities for women in our sector when the benefits of diversity of thought are appreciated by the industry.
The biggest lesson I’ve learnt is the importance of ethics in what we do. It’s not always easy to tell clients what they don’t want to hear or to turn down work because it’s not within your competence. But as professional members of institutions, we sign a code of conduct and agree to abide by it. For me, it’s about acting ethically and doing what is right rather than what is easy.
I decided during the Pandemic that I wanted to be the change I wanted to see. It’s far easier to lament the status quo, but I wanted to play an active part in making things better. So, the mantra I live by is: “If not now, then when? If not me, then who?”
Three tips I would offer to young women starting out in their careers…
Firstly, I would say find something you love to do and that you’re good at. Then work out how you can turn that activity into a career. If you love doing something that many others don’t enjoy, you’ll have found your niche.
We potentially go to work for many decades, so for me it’s important to enjoy your work.
Secondly, find a great environment to work in – “go where you’re celebrated, not where you’re tolerated”. In the early part of your career, you’ll probably need to learn from others. So take great care in finding a job where you’ll be mentored and supported by people who want you to succeed and grow.
Thirdly, set yourself learning goals. Technology today ensures we have so many learning opportunities. Identify what you want to be better at and seek out great speakers, authors or mentors, either in person or online. You might want to gain more knowledge about the work you do, but equally there may be topics that aren’t work-related. I chose early on in my career to better under personal finances and that has served me well; when I became a parent, I studied different parenting approaches. Currently, I’m learning more about leadership and about gender diversity.
We all need role models – people we can look at and aspire to be like. My career role model has been Dr Barbara Lane at Arup for many years. She has inspired me to progress within the fire safety industry, and I was delighted that she agreed to give the keynote at our first conference for women in the industry.
Fiona Perrin at Zurich chaired the Women Talking Fire Committee for a year. Watching Fiona taught me so much about successful social interactions. And then Antonia Nicol and Lisa Martello have really inspired me to speak up about leadership and diversity and inclusion.
I’m looking forward to continuing to do work I enjoy doing and learning. I’m excited about the events that Women Talking Fire has planned for next year and about women in our industry coming together – we’re stronger together.