Firemen ‘joked’ about raping female colleague before acting out attack as report reveals bullying and abuse
Inspectors found evidence of bullying, harassment and abuse in fire services across England
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Inspectors have uncovered “deeply troubling” evidence of bullying, harassment and discrimination in fire and rescue services across England in a damning new report today.
Staff told of racist, sexist and homophobic comments and behaviours which had gone unchallenged or been dismissed as “banter”, according to a report from His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS).
An example included an incident involving two firemen joking with a female firefighter that they were “going to rape her” and the three of them then acted out the rape together.
Other incidents reported to inspectors included a senior officer referring to a black colleague using the “n-word” and putting it down to “having a laugh”, homophobic abuse found written on a firefighter’s locker, and men using women’s toilets and women not feeling confident to challenge this.
Inspectors warn that the incidents uncovered may just be “the tip of the iceberg” and found that bullying, harassment and discrimination are, to varying degrees, still problems in all services.
The report makes 35 recommendations focusing on the values and culture of all 44 fire and rescue services (FRSs) in England and draws on the evidence collected through its inspections since 2018.
His Majesty’s Inspector of Fire & Rescue Services Roy Wilsher said he was “shocked and appalled” by some of the findings, and said he thought a lot of the behaviour was “from the dim, distant past”.
Asked whether it is possible that there are “predators” in the Fire Services like those that have been found to exist in police forces, Mr Wilsher told reporters: “I could not exclude that possibility.”
The report said: “The public deserves assurance that the FRS staff they come into contact with have been subject to background checks prior to carrying out these roles. This is particularly important when considering the link between effective background checks and cultures of misogyny and predatory behaviour seen in policing.
“It is also important in light of the examples of inappropriate behaviour from firefighters towards members of their communities set out in recent allegations.”
‘An old boys’ club’
Inspectors are calling for appropriate background checks on all firefighters and staff, and for new misconduct standards to be introduced, including placing staff found to have committed gross misconduct on a national barred list to protect other services and the public.
In several services, inspectors found a worrying trend of staff not raising concerns if they felt they were not part of an “old boys’ club”, while others felt reluctant to challenge inappropriate behaviour over fears it would affect their prospects. Staff reported fearing getting a “negative mark” against their name and being told it would be “career suicide” to do so.
The report also said all staff – particularly those in emergency service roles where the lives of both staff and members of the public are at risk – need reporting processes they trust as safe, without fear of any reprisals.
Mr Wilsher said the culture across too much of the fire sector is “stagnant and needs to be brought into the 21st century”. He said there was evidence of low trust in grievance procedures in 13 Fire & Rescue Services, adding that a staff survey showed that workers from ethnic minority backgrounds who have experienced bullying or harassment are less likely to report it than white members of staff.
He said: “Our findings shine a light on deeply troubling bullying and harassment in fire and rescue services across the country – and I fear this could be just the tip of the iceberg. Firefighters can be called upon to do an incredibly difficult job. They should be able to trust each other implicitly, just as the public need to be able to trust them.
“Unfortunately, our findings show this is not always the case. Instead, we found trust and respect is too often replaced with derogatory, bullying behaviour, often excused as banter.
“Services told us about misconduct cases over the past 12 months. More than half of these concerned inappropriate behaviour, such as bullying and harassment, associated with a protected characteristic. This is shocking enough but I am not confident that this is even the whole picture.”
Mr Wilsher said specific fire services are not named in the report due to many examples of behaviour being reported to inspectors confidentially by staff.
Fire Brigades Union general secretary Matt Wrack said: “It is welcome that His Majesty’s Inspectorate is beginning to address these issues, and to acknowledge the scale of the problem.
“Our equalities sections have also raised concerns about these issues for many years. It is clear, both from our experience and from the contents of this report, that the failure to address discrimination and harassment in the service goes right to the top.
“Some Fire Service leaders are part of the problem, and have systematically failed to address discrimination, harassment and bullying in the service.”