A fire chief has been recognised for her distinguished service and years of water safety work.

East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service’s (ESFRS) chief fire officer Dawn Whittaker has been awarded the King's Fire Service Medal for Distinguished Service in the New Year’s Honours List.

Dawn joined ESFRS in June 2016 as deputy chief fire officer from Northamptonshire Fire and Rescue Service, becoming chief fire officer in October 2017.

“I was both surprised and humbled when I was told about the award,” she said.

“I have been privileged to work with some fantastic colleagues and partners over many years to influence community safety and in particular to reduce drowning in the UK, so to be recognised for that is a great honour.”

After an early career in the private sector, Dawn’s involvement in the public service began at Northamptonshire County Council, before she joined Northamptonshire Fire and Rescue Service in 2004.

It was there she qualified as a silver and gold incident commander and led several large projects including a new control centre, an award winning incident command training centre and a new fire behaviour and breathing apparatus training facility.

She was appointed assistant chief fire officer in 2006 and progressed to deputy chief fire officer.

She’s had what she describes as “many interesting experiences” as officer in charge of incidents including floods, factory fires, a major incident on the M1 and as gold commander at Silverstone during the Grand Prix.  Dawn has undertaken two secondments, firstly to Warwickshire Fire and Rescue Service, and to central government where she advised on national fire safety matters.

During her time as chief of East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service, the service has driven down accidental fires in the home to the lowest level they have ever been, she supported the development of a water safety education programme to schools and has overseen the introduction of fire cadets, as well as celebrating when East Sussex was named UK Fire and Rescue Service of the Year 2021 in the iESE Public Sector Transformation Awards.

Dawn is also deputy chairwoman of the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) Prevention Committee and sits on the programme board, where she is currently overseeing a project to develop evaluation of prevention work across the sector. She also sits on the NFCC Leadership Board and has been actively involved in developing new leadership products and programmes for the sector. As a senior female officer, she has supported women’s development and equalities work in Sweden and Australia and is currently involved with supporting work in New Zealand.

As a teenager Dawn got into difficulty in a river in Mid-Wales and was rescued by friends when her foot got caught in underwater branches. Coupled with a number of challenging water related incidents since she joined the emergency services, this helped shape her commitment to seek a reduction in the number of accidental drownings and water-related incidents in the UK.

She has been NFCC lead for drowning prevention and water safety since 2013, paving the way for the NFCC to join the UK National Water Safety Forum in 2014. After helping to write the UK Drowning Prevention Strategy, in subsequent years she set up the NFCC water safety practitioners group, which is a group of fire and rescue service people committed to improving water safety that Dawn refers to as “the water safety warriors”.

The NFCC group developed the #BeWaterAware campaign, as well as delivering community safety signage and boards, throwline training, and improved data analysis with support from the data and digital group.

Personally and outside of the NFCC work, Dawn is part of a group called Families Against Drowning, which helps support families impacted by drowning.

Dawn was elected chairwoman of the UK National Water Safety Forum in 2020.

East Sussex Fire authority chairman Roy Galley said: “Dawn has received this accolade for her national work on water safety and it also reflects outstanding contribution to the fire service nationally and her exceptional leadership of East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service.”

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