The power of an image

Yesterday I took a photo of the cover of the Guardian newspaper and tweeted it to my followers. I loved the photo they had published: it showed a strong, professional woman in personal protective equipment suited to the flood water that she was working in. She gazed not at the camera but somewhere off in the distance, unclear what, but she looked purposeful and in control.


Very quickly my tweet got retweeted, first by the Chief Fire Officer for Greater Manchester and then by many others. I got a response – the image was of a firefighter from West Midlands Fire Service, she was working in York as part of a technical rescue team.

This tweet was my most retweeted ever and had the highest level of engagement I’d ever seen for @catherinelevin. I don’t have vast amounts of followers, so this isn’t One Direction territory, but nevertheless, the image captured people’s attention and they wanted to share it. To see her as a symbol of the effort that the fire and rescue service was making to assist those affected by the floods in the days over Christmas 2015.

I’ve followed the media reporting on the flood response and there has been a lot of concern about the way in which the fire and rescue service’s role has not been recognised or swept up under the broad cover of ’emergency response’ – indeed the Guardian was just as guilty as it described the firefighter as an ’emergency worker’ in its caption.

Images like this reinforce the diversity of the fire and rescue service today – both in terms of the employment of women and the incidents that modern firefighters face.

The High Volume Pumps that the Government invested in all those years ago as part of its post 9/11 New Dimension programme (when I was a civil servant working in that policy area) have shown how valuable investment in specialist equipment can be when it is at the forefront of the response effort. This is in stark contrast to the investment made in CBRN response equipment, part of the same New Dimension programme, and recent decisions made not to renew elements of that at the same levels.

There is likely to be a discussion within Government now about what is the right level of funding for flooding incidents (both prevention and response) and where it should be focused. I hope that images like this can provoke that debate and see the right level of investment made in all areas of prevention and response.