Emily Summerfield is a volunteer lifeboat crew member with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) in Brighton. She studied for a geography degree at the University of Gloucestershire before travelling extensively, volunteering in India and working in Australia, then becoming a police constable for Sussex Police until 2022. Emily is now a fraud investigator for American Express and alongside this she is working towards becoming a fully passed-out volunteer on the RNLI Brighton crew.
“Celebrating International Women’s Day is about recognising the struggle of all those women that weren’t or aren’t in such a fortunate position and who had to sacrifice so much – sometimes even their lives – to get to where we are now. It’s a bit of a humble reminder not to take it for granted.”
Saving lives at sea
Back a few years ago, I did an undergraduate geography degree at the University of Gloucestershire, after which I travelled and worked a lot all over the world, volunteering in India and working in travel in Australia before returning to the UK. I continued to work in travel when I got home, and then joined Sussex Police as a constable in 2014 and worked with them until last year when I moved to American Express, taking a job in their fraud investigations department.
Alongside my day job, I’m a mum of two and a volunteer lifeboat crew member with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) in Brighton, a phenomenal organisation that helps anyone in need on or near the water. It’s mainly volunteers who go out on the lifeboats and the RNLI is a charity relying entirely on donations while providing a vital lifesaving service around the coast of the UK and Ireland.
When, not if
It was always a question of when, not if, I’d join. I grew up near the coast and my dad’s always been into boats – he was on the shore crew (the team that launches and recovers the lifeboats) at Eastbourne RNLI for 20 years when I was growing up.
I’d never lived close enough to an RNLI boathouse, but then four years ago I moved closer to the coast, and after I came off maternity leave with my daughter, I applied and got in. It was always on my radar — I don’t know if I quite told my husband that when we got together, but I probably knew that it would happen.
RNLI crews draw together such a great mix of people you wouldn’t normally have had the chance to meet, and there’s amazing camaraderie between them. They’re all lovely people who’ve come together with the same aim – to help others and save lives at sea. It’s just really refreshing to be around them – it restores your faith in humanity.
I didn’t feel like I had masses of skills, but I felt that joining the lifeboat was something I could do to give back to the community that I grew up around and spent a lot of time in. The people who you go out to help on the lifeboats are just ordinary people who’ve found themselves in a difficult situation, and you can really make a difference for them. In their time of crisis, I want to be able to be there to help.
My older sister joined the crew recently, too. I was always telling her how great it was to be part of the RNLI family, and saying how nice everyone is. As she’s self-employed, running her own business, she was finding it quite lonely, so the lifeboat offered that social, teamwork side of a job that she was missing.
Finding the right balance
Balancing being an RNLI volunteer with my day job when I was in the police was tricky – when I was at work, I was at work – and it’s been similar with American Express. As soon as I clock off, though, I’m on call.
I quite like having the two roles – or three roles now that I’m a mum. You feel like you go from being in family mode, cooking baked beans or something, then the pager goes off, you wave goodbye, and a few minutes later you’re on your way to the station getting ready to be in RNLI crew mode. You get a few minutes on your drive down to the marina to flip your mindset and focus, but I guess that’s why I like it and why I enjoyed being in the police, because of the challenges of not knowing what you’re going to be facing and thinking on your feet
As a woman, I’m not made to feel different or out of place at all at the RNLI. Everyone is completely equal. It’s never crossed my mind that anyone thinks of me differently because I’m a woman or that I’m in a minority on the lifeboat. I guess being a woman in policing may have helped, but I’ve never thought too much about it all – I’ve never had cause to.
International Women’s Day: a humbling reminder
With International Women’s Day coming up, it makes me feel very grateful for all the opportunities I’ve had that others would not have done in the past. Being a woman who has spent a fair bit of her career in a predominantly male public service and search-and-rescue organisation, as well as having a daughter who’s ever such a strong, independent four-year-old, I feel like this is the world that we are lucky enough to live in now.
Celebrating International Women’s Day is about recognising the struggle of all those women that weren’t or aren’t in such a fortunate position and who had to sacrifice so much – sometimes even their lives – to get to where we are now. It’s a bit of a humble reminder not to take it for granted. This year I’ll be celebrating with my daughter – we’re planning on going out for a girly hot chocolate together.
Full steam ahead
My focus now that I’m back from maternity leave is becoming a fully qualified crew member in the next year. The training got a bit scuppered by COVID and having two children and I’ve got quite a bit left to do before I’m what is called a passed-out crew member. I’ve been back about six months after my last maternity so it’s time to really get my teeth into it.
If anyone wants to get involved with supporting the RNLI, my advice would be to get in touch. There are so many ways — you can donate, organise a fundraising event, or join as a volunteer or staff member. If you want to join us, there are roles to suit anyone from fundraisers, shop volunteers, shore or lifeboat crew to engineers and water safety education managers.
If anyone wants to find out more about volunteering at the RNLI, you can visit https://rnli.org/support-us/volunteer.