Firefighter and union leader Helen Harrison passed away on April 18, 2020 at the age of 55 from cancer. A champion of equality, Helen worked tirelessly to ensure that women in the UK’s Fire and Rescue Service (FRS) and Fire Brigades Union (FBU) were heard, supported and respected. She fought to improve their working lives, delivering groundbreaking policies and practices that have had far-reaching impact throughout the fire service in the UK, and in other women’s unions and initiatives around the world. Helen’s sisters from the National Women’s Committee of the FBU wrote the following in tribute to her. We are honored to amplify their voices in celebration of this woman everyone should know.
By National Women’s Committee of the Fire Brigades Union – Our H meant so much to so many people. Each and every person who knew Helen will have their own memory of her, but thankfully all of us can share in her legacy.
We will never forget the strength, love, honesty and kindness that she gave to anyone who was fortunate enough to come into her world. There is no right way to get through the pain and sadness that we feel, but we can celebrate Helen’s life and achievements in our own way.
Helen joined the FBU National Women’s Committee as a Rep for Region 7 and was at the first meeting of the newly formed NWC in 1999. It is hard to believe now, but Helen always said of the meeting that she was scared of a couple of the women in the room. As you can imagine that didn’t last long and long-term friendships were made there and then that have lasted through some pretty tough times.
Helen soon got set in her role, showing huge amounts of commitment, dedication and fearless campaigning which saw her elected as chair of the NWC. Helen was also a highly respected member of the Regional Committee in Region 7 and worked alongside officials and activists to make serious and progressive change. Her favourite phrase at conference as she looked over her glasses at the Region 7 delegation was, “When Helen is happy, everyone is happy.”
Helen was a serious feminist and political activist (although she always said she wasn’t very political) but she did everything with a sense of humour which often took the sting out of a situation.
Helen was instrumental in developing the FBU NWC Maternity, Paternity and Adoption best practice policy and one of her proudest moments was when her FRS adopted the policy in full, giving women 39 weeks fully paid maternity leave. Hers was the first FRS to do this and paved the way for other FRS to match it.
Those that knew Helen knew that there was barely a week that went by when she wasn’t representing or supporting women and she was so proud to be part of the NWC who continue to tirelessly represent women both in and outside the workplace.
Helen was an exceptional rep who encouraged new women to get active and then nurtured them throughout their journey. She gave them the tools to “find their voice” in the FBU at the many FBU national women’s schools where she guided, listened and tutored hundreds of women who attended over the years.
Helen epitomized the NWC where the ethos is to work together and support each other for progressive change. When interviewed for Siren magazine, Helen was asked why she was still a rep after many, many years. Her answer:
“Well, because when someone made the decision to create and integrate a committee of women, to work for women members as part of the FBU, they did a very good thing. The very fact that our reps are representing so many women, being consulted by so many women, that we have a steady stream of new faces at our meetings and schools and that women return to our school year after year says it all. For me, it has been an education, long hours of hard work, the emotional high and lows that representing members inevitably brings but new knowledge and new ways to move forward. Most of all I’ve met some exceptional and truly inspirational women through the committee, some of whom have become great friends. I didn’t know what I was getting into, but I am sure glad I did!”
Well, Helen – on behalf of the NWC, women (and men) past, present and future, within the FBU and wider labour and trade union movement – we are sure glad you did too.
Our deepest sympathy is with Helen’s husband Ian, her family and friends. She will never be forgotten and will forever be in our hearts.
Women You Should Know extends our sincere condolences to Helen’s husband, family and friends, as well as to her sisters and bothers in the fire and rescue service. We are grateful to Serena Benassi, Station Officer – London Fire Brigade, Denise Christie, Regional Secretary – Fire Brigades Union, and the entire National Women’s Committee for introducing us to Helen Harrison and for allowing us to honor her with them through their beautiful words.
All photos credit to National Women’s Committee of the Fire Brigades Union and republished here with their express permission.