Discrimination, harassment and intimidation are rife at the fire service, a watchdog warned after discovering incidents of firefighters “performing a rape” and using the n-word.
M The Marechaussee and Fire and Rescue Services Inspectorate found that a ‘pack-like’ mentality in some fire brigades made firefighters afraid to report colleagues and led them to believe that nothing would happen if they did.
Inspector Roy Wilsher said the cases discovered so far “may be just the tip of the iceberg”. The report contained numerous examples of misogynistic, racist and homophobic incidents, including:
- Two male firefighters ‘act out the rape’ of a female colleague
- A senior officer referring to a black colleague using the “n-word” and writing it down as “laugh”
- Homophobic abuse written on a firefighter’s locker
- A firefighter who is told it would be “career suicide” to push for action against a senior officer’s racist remark
- Hostility towards female staff and suggestions they were employed “because they have a vagina”
Mr Wilsher told a press conference he could not rule out the possibility that “predators” are currently working in the UK’s fire and rescue services, saying: “I couldn’t rule out that possibility.”
The report called for a review of vetting and misconduct processes for firefighters, including legal changes to expand criminal record searches and a new body to set standards.
Mr Wilsher warned that current variations in DBS controls “create an unacceptable risk that needs to be addressed”, adding: “The industry cannot wait a day for action.”
He said the watchdog had been unable to obtain data on how many serving firefighters have previous convictions, or how many crimes have been committed while on duty, and called for better information sharing.
“Trust and respect are too often replaced by derogatory, bullying behaviour, often excused as banter,” the inspector added. “Staff should feel they can report allegations without fear of retaliation, and any fire and rescue personnel found to have committed gross misconduct should be placed on a national exclusion list to protect other services and the public. “
The report identified a “pack-like” mentality in some watch groups, which sometimes see firefighters working, training, eating and sleeping close together for years.
“Some watches had normalized unacceptable behavior, including discrimination, bullying and harassment,” Wilsher said, adding that new recruits felt they had to “adjust to the prevailing culture to fit in.”
Examples from an earlier report on the London Fire Brigade included mocking people’s religion, placing bets on who would be the first person on a team to sleep with a woman, and filling helmets with urine.
Firefighters were found to have “searched women’s drawers for underwear and sex toys during fire safety visits”.
The Inspectorate opposed claims that bad behavior was limited to the agency’s “pockets” and warned: “Our evidence shows that such concerns are widespread, and this report brings together evidence from a number of sources.”
It pointed to unofficial social media accounts used by serving and former firefighters that “depict misogyny, racism and homophobia as banter”.
The report found that more than half of England’s misconduct cases in the past year involved inappropriate behaviour, including bullying and harassment related to protected characteristics such as race, gender and sexuality.
According to data collected by the Cabinet Office in 2018, firefighters were the least ethnically diverse of all public sector employees.
The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) was criticized in part of the report for using slogans “that have the potential to cause rifts” and create the risk of “excluding people who don’t conform rather than supporting colleagues to raise concerns, for example” ”.
FBU Secretary General Matt Wrack said he welcomed the report and that concerns had been raised within the union over the same issues for “many years”. He added that the failure to deal with them went “straight to the top”.
The report, commissioned by the government following damning inspections by the London and Gloucestershire Fire Brigades, called for a new “College of Fire and Rescue” to set training standards, the introduction of confidential whistleblower hotlines and legislative changes to strengthen background checks.
Mr Wilsher called on the government and the fire service to act urgently on his 35 recommendations, adding: “I am shocked and appalled by some of these findings. I thought a lot of this behavior came from the dim and distant past. It’s time for it to stop.”
Mr Wrack said: “It is welcome that His Majesty’s Inspectorate is beginning to address these issues and recognize the magnitude of the problem. Our equality departments have also raised concerns about these issues for years.
“It is clear, both from our experience and from the content of this report, that not addressing discrimination and harassment in the service goes straight to the top. Some fire chiefs are part of the problem and have systematically failed to address discrimination, harassment and bullying in the service. An investigation has been initiated or disciplinary proceedings have been instituted against the complainants.”
He added: “The Fire Service Union will play a leading role in transforming the culture of the fire service and rescue services.”