Sabrina Cohen-Hatton is one of the highest ranking firefighters in the UK. At 37, she’s the youngest Chief Fire Officer in the country and one of only a handful of women in the role. Throughout her career she’s blazed a trail for others to follow.
But her journey through life could have been very different. Before joining the fire service, Sabrina was homeless; a vulnerable teenager living on the streets of South Wales.
“My father died of a brain tumour when I was nine and my mum found it incredibly difficult to cope,” she recalls. “We lived in abject poverty. When I was 15 I started sleeping rough on the streets on Newport. That was a really difficult time.”
Sabrina has returned to the city to retrace her steps. Seeing those same alleys and doorways brings the past into sharp focus.
“My strongest memory is of being cold all the time. And the cold would get so deep in your bones that it didn't matter how many layers you wrapped up in, it would still be there.
“One night I woke up and a couple of guys were urinating on my sleeping bag. I was a 16 year old girl then and they were laughing like it was the biggest joke in the world. So I just moved on, sat on a bench in the middle of town, with my knees tucked under my arms, and I just sobbed for the rest of the night.”
Sabrina would eat leftover food from bins and wash herself in pub toilets. During the day she would travel by bus to Monmouth to sell the Big Issue magazine. When she revisits the town, for the first time in 20 years, she remembers the generosity of passers by.
“People showed a lot of human kindness here which was good for my self esteem at a time when I really didn’t have any. I'm grateful. I'm really, really grateful.”
Selling the Big Issue was a turning point. It meant Sabrina could save up enough money to rent a small flat in Risca. “This was the first place where I could close the door and feel safe,” she says, looking up at the building. “For the first time I wasn’t just using tactics to survive, I was beginning to form a strategy to live.”
Risca had a part-time fire station. In 2001, aged just 18, Sabrina passed her interview and became the station’s first female firefighter.
“With the fire service you’re trusted by people to know what to do when they are at their most vulnerable. I knew what it felt like to live nearly every day like it's the worst day of your life so I wanted to do something to help people in a similar situation. I think, in a funny kind of way, I wanted to rescue other people in a way that no one had been able to rescue me.”
Sabrina had taken her first steps on a journey that would reshape her life. The years that followed saw a series of promotions and postings across the UK, leading to her current role as Chief Fire Officer at West Sussex.
Along the way she also gained a PHD in Behavioural Neuroscience from Cardiff University. Her ongoing research examines the high-pressure situations regularly faced by serving firefighters. The aim is to improve life and death decision-making on the front line.
But Sabrina has never forgotten her years of homelessness and the teenage trauma of sleeping rough on the streets.
“The overarching reason I decided to speak about it is because I know there are still thousands of people in the same space today that I was back then. And I needed them to know that they have worth, they have value. They don’t have to be defined by an experience of homelessness. Because homelessness is an experience, it’s not an identity, that’s the point.
“Your circumstances don’t define you. They don’t determine where you end up, only where you start from.”