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As the North of England’s only female emergency response gas engineer, Sarah Wilkinson is carrying the flame for female empowerment on International Women in Engineering Day this Tuesday (June 23).

Sarah is an Operational Response Engineer Northern Gas Networks – the North of England’s gas distributor.

If a customer smells gas, or suspects Carbon Monoxide, Sarah is first on the scene. Using hi-tech equipment such as a Gascoseeker, combined with years of experience, Sarah is responsible for detecting and fixing gas leaks, to keep customers safe and sound.

Hailing from Pickering, Sarah covers the Scarborough patch for Northern Gas Networks.

The role remains male-dominated, reflective of the fact that just 11% of all engineering jobs in the UK are occupied by women. However, Sarah has had nothing but encouragement from her male counterparts since she took up the job five years ago.

“All the lads have been very supportive,” said Sarah. “There’s been none of that ‘she’s a girl, so she can’t do it,’ nonsense.

“There are a few blokey conversations back at the depot that I don’t join in with. For example, I’m not the biggest football fan. But by and large, I have a great working relationship with all the lads. We look out for one another.

“When I first started, I was quite nervous, as I think everyone is. You are given your training, but nothing can quite prepare you for that first call-out in the middle of the night, when it is just you, on your own, responsible for keeping the customer safe. You’re going into a potentially explosive or poisonous atmosphere, so it’s a big responsibility.

“I remember a colleague advising me that if I felt out of my depth at any point, to just tell the customer that I was going to get something from the van. That way, I could take a few deep breaths, recompose myself and go back in.

“These days, although I have a lot more experience, I still feel a nervous energy when I arrive at a job. But I think that’s a good thing as it keeps you sharp.”

Sarah, who is 43 and a former RAF aerospace systems operator, has made a career out of smashing female stereotypes – such as a fear of spiders.

“In our job, you are always working in little nooks and crannies, full of all sorts of insects. Luckily, I don’t have a problem with spiders. Unfortunately, one of my male colleagues, who started at the same time as me, is terrified of them. I always found it amusing that a burly bloke had such an aversion.

“Being a woman in this role can sometimes be an advantage. When you are dealing with an elderly, female customer for example, I think it can be easier for me to quickly build a rapport, because the customer feels more at ease.

“In some circumstances, however, I don’t mind admitting that the guys have the upper hand. You can often find yourself working all night in the middle of nowhere. Basic things such as finding somewhere to go to the loo become rather tricky. Easy enough if you are a bloke. Not so easy for me!”

The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way Sarah and her colleagues approach jobs. If a customer has suspected COVID-19 symptoms, or is shielding, Sarah is required to wear full PPE, which is then bagged and disposed of following the job.

“I did worry about working during the pandemic at first, but I think most of us have got used to the routine now,” said Sarah. “We have to be available for our customers, 24 hours a day, so it’s a case of working as safely and sensibly as possible. Sometimes it can be difficult, because I might be the only human being some customers have had in their home for weeks. I’m asking them to stay in another room of the house while I work, but meanwhile, they are desperate for a face to face conversation!”

Being able to get along with people, is a crucial aspect of Sarah’s role.

“You’re often meeting people who are worried or distressed, and they are looking to you to keep them safe. You’ve got to quickly reassure the customer, so that you can get the job done,” she said. “You also have to make difficult decisions – such as disconnecting a customer’s gas supply in order to prevent a dangerous situation.

“You’ve also got to be prepared for just about anything. Only last week, I found myself trying to free a live pigeon that had got stuck in a customer’s chimney. Thankfully, it escaped safe and sound.”

Trapped pigeons, creepy crawlies and keeping customers safe and sound – all in a night’s work for Sarah.