How homeless teen became one of UK’s top firefighters with ‘grit and determination’

One of the UK’s top firefighters has told how living homeless at 15 helped her find the “grit and determination” to succeed at work.

Sabrina Cohen-Hatton, now 36, is a published author, has a PhD and is a chief fire officer.

But she recently told Wales Online she spent two years on the streets at 15 and, by 17, had been to seven funerals of homeless people she knew.

“It was pretty unpleasant. But equally there are things that came out of that time that were positive.

“Because I had lived that other life, I knew how hard life could be and how I’d been knocked down over and over again.

“I knew that no matter how difficult my life was it was not as hard and that life.

“It gave me that grit and determination. It’s made me really respect everyone,” Sabrina said.

Sabrina eventually managed to escape her life on the streets in Newport, south Wales, through selling the Big Issue and joined the fire service.

Her book The Heat of the Moment reflects on this, which she calls “another life”.

“One of those things that I talk about in the book is about how that life shaped what came later.

“When I did my PhD I worked relentlessly and I think it was one of those things that really helped me,” the mum-of-one, now living in Cardiff, said.

After saving up enough money selling the Big Issue, Sabrina was able to get a “very cheap” flat in the Welsh Valleys in her late teens.

The firefighter continued: “It was really hard. It took me a few attempts to get off the streets.

“It’s not as easy as just getting a roof over your head. I did end up in a room in a hostel and I got badly beaten by one of the guys that was staying there.”

But The Heat of the Moment describes how Sabrina was attacked by a fascist at 16. She writes that he he beat her and held a burning cigarette on her arm while shouting anti-semitic abuse.

Before writing the book, Sabrina said her past was something she rarely shared.

Sabrina said: “Looking back it’s funny, I spent a long time trying to put a lot of it behind me.

“When I broke out of it it was important to almost invent someone else, so that people didn’t have any preconceptions.

“I spent a long time trying to forget about it. It was terrifying sharing it.”

Sabrina is now an ambassador for the Big Issue, and wants others who maybe in a similar situation to know that their circumstances do not need to define them.

Before living on the streets Sabrina had never thought of joining the fire service.

She said: “The reason the fire service appealed to me because I had spent time on the streets living my worst possible day, and in the fire service you are extremely privileged because you are helping others when they are having their worst possible day.

“It was through being homeless that made me look at how I could help other people.”

At the age of 18 she joined the fire service in Risca, becoming the first ever female firefighter at the station and in the division.

Sabrina said: “It was tough but it was so worthwhile. One of the things I’m really passionate about is changing what a fire fighter should be. “It was male dominated then and it is now.”

Sabrina, who said there are more chief fire officers in the UK called Chris than female chief fire officers, wants people to know that being good at the role is not determined by gender.

Writing for Penguin Publishers, Sabrina said: “What are you imagining? “A man? Strong? Handsome and heroic?

“The reality is starkly different. I’ve seen more firefighters who look more like Ed Balls than Tom Hardy.”

Now Sabrina is deputy assistant commissioner of Surrey fire brigade and is one of the highest ranking female fire fighters in the UK.

Before writing her book Sabrina published a groundbreaking study to help keep firefighters safe.

It all came from when a call came in that a fellow firefighter had been incredibly badly burnt and Sabrina knew it was a one in four chance it was her fiancé.

Sabrina spent the longest four minutes and 37 seconds of her life driving to the scene, in agony not knowing if it was him.

When she arrived her now-husband wasn’t the one injured, prompting feelings of guilt and relief – and marked the moment when Sabrina decided to begin her PhD at Cardiff University.

Her research tried to get into firefighters’ heads – finding out what they are thinking, how they respond, and how they behave when asked to run into a situation most would run from.

Her latest work, The Heat of the Moment, is part memoir and again looks at how the brain works under pressure and what lessons can be learnt.


It includes a number of incidents from her own career and aims to show the human side of firefighters.

Sabrina said: “The book tries to unpack what happens during an incident. It also shows people the human side of firefighters, that we are not just people that sweep in like heroes and save the day.”

The Heat Of The Moment, by Sabrina Cohen-Hatton, is published by Doubleday and priced at £14.99.