“I was 16 when I first started selling The Big Issue. Well, I was 15, but I lied about my age!” Sabrina Cohen-Hatton is a walking, talking, firefighting reminder to ditch our preconceptions.

At 36, she is one of the most senior firefighters in the UK, taking charge of the service’s response to terror attacks in Finsbury Park and Westminster in London in 2017. Cohen-Hatton is a reminder that brains and empathy rather than brawn are top of the list of requirements to be successful in her profession. She is also a prize-winning academic and author of a new book on life-and-death decision-making.

Her list of achievements is especially remarkable because aged 15 she was homeless. Her happy life just outside Cardiff had been shattered by her father’s death six years earlier and, like so many young people, she slipped through support services’ net.

One teacher even saw me selling the magazine, but he crossed the road to avoid me

Sleeping rough while taking her GCSEs, already her resourcefulness and determination were in evidence.

“I would sell The Big Issue every day after school,” she says, when we meet up in West London. “I was in the town centre, so there was no secret to the fact I was sleeping rough. One teacher even saw me selling the magazine, but he crossed the road to avoid me.”

She lets out a hollow laugh at the memory and quietly calls him a jerk. For years, Cohen-Hatton suppressed memories like this. She finds it hard to talk about her past but is doing so now, she says, “to tell people who are in the same place I was that it doesn’t have to define you. Your circumstance doesn’t determine where you end up, just where you start from. It doesn’t define what you can do.”

Revisiting her past is painful. But slowly her story tumbles out – a tale of poverty and the lack of a safety net, of community and survival.

“Life was brilliant until my dad got ill. He was given six months to live, but ended up living for six years. None of my family are very good with authority,” she says.

“He was an awesome man. Him and my mum absolutely idolised each other. To the point where she still sleeps on the sofa where he died. She has never got over his death. After he died she suffered very badly with her mental health.

“Things were really difficult. We were completely poverty-stricken. Our school dinner was the only real sustenance we ever got. Home was just hideous. We didn’t have any heating, we didn’t have any food. At school I was too embarrassed to do PE – I didn’t want to get changed because my feet were dirty. I didn’t have close friends because we were the dirty, scruffy kids that no one wanted to hang out with.”

After leaving her unhappy home, Cohen-Hatton sofa-surfed until she had outstayed her welcome.

“It wasn’t long before I was sleeping rough. On and off, for two years I was either sleeping rough or vulnerably housed. And it was really shit, actually. You always think it will never happen to you.

“We used to sleep in the doorway of a disused church until it was boarded up, I would sleep in subways until I woke up to a guy pissing on my sleeping bag, and around the back of the post office there was an air-conditioning outlet.”

It is the ones with the least who share the most

Throughout this time, Cohen-Hatton attempted to project an air of normality, stashing her books in The Big Issue office or in the shadows of a derelict building she used to sleep in. She found support through The Big Issue and a group of homeless people who looked after her on the street.

“It was like a community in a way, ironically, I hadn’t experienced previously,” she says. “Because when life is that difficult, you feel very isolated, even within a family.

“One guy was so amazing – he had lived his whole life in and out of care and young offenders’ prisons. From day one he treated me like his little sister. I owe him hugely. It is the ones with the least who share the most. I was more vulnerable than ever before, but I felt like I had people around me who gave a shit.”

There were times I was really hungry. I would eat out of bins

Cohen-Hatton mentions that The Children’s Act of 2004, which states that public bodies have a duty to share information if they think a child is vulnerable, would have helped her.

“But this was in 1999. I was looking for help from the authorities and there was none,” she says.

“When I went to meet my old social worker, I was met with an empty office. If that was to happen to me now, a bit older and wiser, I would persevere. But at the time you just think ‘This is another rejection.’

“I went to the council to get on the housing list, but people who were about to become homeless were prioritised over people who were already homeless. I don’t resent that because becoming homeless is horrible – I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.

“There were times I was really hungry. I would eat out of bins. I was too young to claim any benefits – they offered me £15 a fortnight ‘bridging allowance’. Don’t spend it all at once.

“So that was the great thing about The Big Issue. It gave me an opportunity to earn. It gave me some dignity back at a time when I felt like I didn’t have any. When you live that life, you feel invisible. You feel like a ghost in society.

“If someone in the street falls over, people rush over to help, but there you are on the street corner with no food in your belly, nowhere to live, no clean clothes and people walk past you like you are not there.”

By the time I was 17, I had been to seven funerals of people I was homeless with

There were difficult situations to navigate. Cohen-Hatton describes the state of being vulnerable and constantly on the lookout for danger while homeless as “like living in an episode of Danger Mouse”.

She says: “When you are so used to feeling vulnerable, you see everything as a threat. I used to look for escape routes all the time and create booby traps so I could get away. There were a few times I was bloody glad that I did as well.

“I was very fortunate. I never got into drugs,” she continues. “But one of the things that was really apparent is that you can’t live that life and not be touched by them. By the time I was 17, I had been to seven funerals of people I was homeless with who had overdosed or had a bad batch.

“It happens around you. One minute they are there, the next that is them gone forever. All of these people are human beings, someone’s son or daughter. Some were mums or dads. And that is it, life is snuffed out. You don’t get another shot, that is game over. And that was really, really hard.”

It was Big Issue money that got me my flat. And I felt very proud that I’d earned it

After completing her exams, and selling The Big Issue at several pitches in Newport, Cardiff and occasionally Chepstow, Cohen-Hatton moved on.

“Seeing people around me dropping like flies, I thought I have to get out. I decided to go hammer and tongs to get out of that life. So I went to Monmouth.

“I used to get up at 6am and spend an hour on the bus, then sell The Big Issue from 7am to 7pm. Then I would have a little bit each day to put aside.

“I was able to save up three months’ rent in advance, which was £200 a month, and put down a deposit on a very cheap rented flat outside Newport. It wasn’t much but it was mine. It was Big Issue money that got me my flat. And I felt very proud that I’d earned it.

“My dog, Menace, came with me to my flat and still slept on my feet – like he did when we were in a sleeping bag.”

Trailblazer: Sabrina Cohen-Hatton at work as a firefighter

From that stable base, things improved for Cohen-Hatton. She chose her new location for its cheap price, but also its vicinity to a part-time fire station.

“I really wanted to join the fire service. Even when I was still homeless, this was what I was aspiring to,” she says. “I applied to 30 different fire services across the country. I would have gone anywhere, but I got the job in south Wales. And it was all up from there.

“I love that they took me on the strength of who I was. They took someone who on paper didn’t look like a great prospect, a girl who had a great big chunk of NFA [No Fixed Abode] and whose greatest achievement to date was making Big Issue Vendor of the Week – three times, no less! The fire service is a second chance for loads of people.

I saw it as an opportunity to rescue other people in a way that no one rescued me

“But the thing that really attracted me is that it gives you the opportunity to make someone’s life better. Whether proactively making sure they don’t have a fire, or being one of the people trusted to know what to do on someone’s very worst day.

“I knew what rock bottom felt like. I knew what the worst possible day felt like. And I certainly knew what vulnerability felt like. I saw it as an opportunity to rescue other people in a way that no one rescued me. That is something that I carry with me every single day when I go to work.”

Fire service

Joining the fire service, Cohen-Hatton progressed through the ranks. By 25, she was a station commander. “For most firefighters, it gets under your skin. It is a vocation, it becomes part of your identity.”

She was inspired to study psychology by an incident in which she feared her then-fiancé – now husband – Mike was injured in a call-out that left one of his colleagues severely burned.

“There was only one fire engine at that incident and I knew he was on it. So there was a one-in-four chance it was him. It was just hideous,” she recalls.

“When I saw he was OK, I had this sense of relief but a massive sense of guilt – because the whole journey I crossed my fingers hoping it wasn’t him. I felt I had wished it on someone else. And that person was our friend, not just a colleague.”

Someone told me they didn’t think I could do it – that was all the fire I needed!

Cohen-Hatton decided to channel her guilt for the greater good by looking into ways to reduce instances of firefighter injury.

“What I discovered, to my shock, is that 80 per cent of all industrial accidents are as a result of human error. Not a failure of a piece of equipment or flawed procedure, but a human mistake. Someone effectively making the wrong choice in the wrong place at the wrong time – with the outcome that real people get hurt.

“I started to try to unpick the mechanisms that go through your brain when you are exposed to these circumstances. That is what drove me right through my PhD and we have been doing research for nearly a decade now.”

She completed her part-time PhD in just three years, kicking off her research straight after giving birth to her daughter Gabriella, who is now nine. That would be quick for a full-time student, let alone a part-timer with a new baby. How did she manage? “Someone told me they didn’t think I could do it – that was all the fire I needed!”

Her research has since won international awards, including two from the American Psychological Association, and led to changes in policy and decision-making protocol across the fire service and other emergency services.

“I wanted to get people to think about the human side of firefighting, not just the idea that you dial 999 and a superhero then appears,” she says. “A firefighter’s strength is how they work as a team – and for that you need a diverse group to deal with every kind of situation. You wouldn’t want a toolbox full of the same-sized spanner, so you don’t want a crew that is all massive and muscular.

“When I was on the trucks, I would often be the one that crawled into the back of a mangled wreckage to give lifesaving first aid because I was the littlest one.”

She also talks about the effects of coming into close contact with horrific situations on a regular basis.

“I would be lying if I said I didn’t sometimes get this overwhelming fear of loss. Because we see it happen every day, you really know your own mortality. The amount of time I have spent just watching my daughter sleep, thinking about how lucky I am to have her.”

I still have this massive feeling of guilt for the people that died on the street when I was with them

Reflecting on her decision to tell her own life story – which has already been optioned for TV by Kudos, the makers of Broadchurch and Life on Mars – alongside the lessons any one of us can learn from her pioneering research, Cohen-Hatton admits to more survivor’s guilt.

“It was hard to relive all those vulnerabilities,” she says. “At times I was typing away on my laptop and tears were falling down my face. You are reliving emotions, but there is also that guilt factor – that I got out of it and some of the other people haven’t.

“I am sat in my warm comfortable home that I now own, typing away on my laptop that I can afford, with food in my fridge and a family around me that I love and who love me. And I still have this massive feeling of guilt for the people that died on the street when I was with them. For the people that never escaped. And for the people still in that day-to-day survival battle as opposed to really living.”

Sabrina Cohen-Hatton is a Big Issue Ambassador. Her book The Heat Of The Moment: Life and Death Decision-Making from a Firefighter is out now (Doubleday, £16.99)

Image: Louise Haywood-Schiefer