Fire services report: watchdog says 2 services have ‘toxic’ cultures with change needed to reduce safety risks

Staff at one fire service told of homophobic and racial slurs being dismissed as “banter”

Two fire and rescue services in England have “toxic” workplace cultures and more in general needs to be done to “reduce risks to public safety”, according to a new inspection.

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) has today (27 July) published a report on 15 fire and rescue services across the country.

The organisation said although in general services across England are improving, “further change is urgently needed” - particularly on staff culture and diversity.

Her Majesty’s Inspector of Fire and Rescue Services Roy Wilsher said: “It is encouraging to see that many services that received causes of concern in our first round of inspections have taken meaningful steps to improve and act on recommendations.

“However… We saw some worrying examples of poor behaviour during our inspections.

“In two services, these cultures were found to be toxic and that is not good enough. We continue to find too many services haven’t taken enough steps to promote and improve equality, diversity and inclusion.

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“Worryingly, too many services don’t prioritise fire prevention activity enough – this is crucial for public safety.”

The London Fire Brigade recently attended a dangerous blaze in the village of Wennington amid the 40C heatwave

The inspectorate has issued six new causes of concern, while three causes of concern for services from its first round of inspections in 2018 and 2019 remain in place. These concerns relate to fire prevention, values and culture, and fairness and diversity.

The following fire and rescue services were reported on:

  • Devon and Somerset
  • Essex County 
  • Gloucestershire
  • Humberside
  • Lancashire
  • London
  • Norfolk
  • Northamptonshire
  • Nottinghamshire
  • Oxfordshire
  • Shropshire
  • Staffordshire
  • Tyne and Wear 
  • West Sussex
  • West Yorkshire 

Which services were causes for concern?

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Gloucestershire Fire and Rescue Service was the only service which was identified as “inadequate” (the lowest score) in one of the report’s sections.

This score was in response to the question about how well the service looks after its people, with HMICFRS citing “inappropriate language, lack of respect for colleagues, bullying, harassment and discrimination” as examples of the “unacceptable behaviour” discovered.

Her Majesty’s Inspector of Fire and Rescue Services Wendy Williams said: “The service hasn’t done enough to have its values and associated behaviours accepted and understood by everyone, or to promote a positive workplace culture.

“Staff told us that senior leaders are not visible and staff described unacceptable behaviours, inconsistent with the service’s values, that they do not feel confident to challenge.”

The London Fire Brigade workplace culture was described by some staff as “toxic” and “pack-like”, with some saying new recruits “have a tough time” and that “a big part of the culture is based on how long they have worked for the brigade.”

This has resulted in staff being reluctant to speak up about poor behaviour, for fear of being branded a “troublemaker”.

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London Fire Brigade is reportedly aware of the issue and has introduced Safe To Speak Up champions to improve reporting of concerns.

In West Sussex, there were reports of homophobic and racist slurs being dismissed as “banter” and of racist and sexist behaviours going unchallenged.

Staff said the service is trying to tackle the issue, but they believed “the culture wouldn’t really change until the older generation retired” - with 35% of staff saying they did not feel senior leaders modelled and maintained the values of the service.

The service was however found to be “good” at efficiently keeping people safe and secure from fire risks.

Staffordshire Fire and Rescue Service’s performance has deteriorated since the last inspection.

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While it was identified as “good” at “effectively keeping people safe and secure from fire and other risks” - the service also required improvement when it came to looking after its staff.

In its report, HMICFRS wrote: “We were told about examples of discriminatory behaviour that had been reported but no action was taken.

“We also heard about several examples of bullying behaviour or inappropriate comments being made in front of managers with no action taken.”

Which services performed well in the inspection?

The report posed three primary questions - how effective is the service at keeping people safe and secure?, how efficient is the service at keeping people safe and secure? and how well does the service look after its people?

Seven services scored “good” in all categories.

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These were:

  • Humberside
  • Lancashire
  • Nottinghamshire
  • Oxfordshire
  • Shropshire
  • Tyne and Wear
  • West Yorkshire

Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service was congratulated for an “excellent performance”.

Her Majesty’s Inspector of Fire and Rescue Services Matt Parr said: “The service is good at understanding and preventing fires, as well as good at protecting people and responding to fires and emergencies.

“The service is outstanding at promoting the right culture and values.

“It has a good understanding of its future financial challenges, and has identified savings and investment opportunities.”

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Prince Charles recently met with firefighters at Morecambe Fire Station to mark 21 years of Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service

Humberside Fire and Rescue Service was described as offering a “significant range of wellbeing services to support both physical and mental health (with availability extended to the families of staff where appropriate).

This support includes fitness advisors, counselling, physiotherapy, and a “critical stress management process” to all staff involved in a significant incident - such as a traumatic road collision.

86% of staff at Shropshire Fire and Rescue Service said senior leaders consistently modelled and maintained the service’s values, and 94% said they are treated with dignity and respect in the workplace.

What about the other services?

Northamptonshire Fire Service was praised for having “effective wellbeing policies” in place, but reportedly needs to formally monitor overtime and secondary contracts to ensure working hours are not exceeded.

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While the service in Northamptonshire was found to “prioritise wellbeing”, HMICFRS said senior leaders needed to ensure staff felt appreciated and listened to.

Essex and Devon & Somerset Fire and Rescue Services were both said to be improving, but had more “work to do” in terms of culture.

What were the overall findings?

HMICFRS ultimately found that the sector continues to be well prepared to respond to both routine and major emergency incidents, and there has been a positive shift in services prioritising fire protection.

However, there is evidence of poor workplace culture and some services have not done enough to improve equality, diversity and inclusion.

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Services also need to further prioritise fire prevention activity.

HMICFRS also took the opportunity to praise the country’s fire services for their “courage” and “dedication” in recent weeks, following the UK’s record-breaking heatwave and the wildfires that have torn through Europe.

Her Majesty’s Inspector of Fire and Rescue Services Roy Wilsher said: "I am in no doubt of the incredible courage firefighters show each and every day and their dedication to keeping the public safe, and I want to thank them and the other emergency staff who worked so hard last week to protect us all during record-breaking temperatures.”

You can read the full reports for each fire and rescue service on HMICFRS’ website.