`Sexist and racist culture' rife in the fire service

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The Independent Online
THE FIRE SERVICE is dominated by sexist, racist and homophobic white male officers whose "macho" culture has driven away women and ethnic minority recruits, a damning study has found.

Government inspectors discovered pornographic videos and magazines on display at some fire stations. Women who wanted to become firefighters were condemned as "husband stealers" or money grabbers intent on making cash through bogus harassment claims. The few women who joined the service were subjected to sexual harassment. There were instances of male firefighters urinating over the floor and toilet rolls in women's toilets, as well as allegations of "flashing" and assault.

The Fire Service in England and Wales was also condemned as institutionally racist. In a forthcoming tribunal an ethnic minority officer is to claim damages after suffering from an alleged campaign of racism, which included having razor blades hidden in his boots.

Most staff were not even prepared to contemplate the issue of gay officers, which was considered a "taboo" subject. Gay firefighters risked vilification from colleagues and overwhelmingly hid their sexuality. Only about a dozen of the 150 known gay officers in the service have dared to come out.

The Home Office, which ordered the study by Her Majesty's Fire Service Inspectorate, has given fire chiefs 18 months to implement 23 recommendations. Mike O'Brien, a Home Office minister, said the report, published yesterday, showed that the Fire Service was 10 years behind the times. "This sort of laddish, macho behaviour is unacceptable in modern society," he said.

Figures for March this year show there were 513 people from the ethnic minorities and 436 women employed in a service made up of 33,597 full- time and 14,483 part-time staff. The Government has set a 7 per cent recruitment target - about 3,000 ethnic minority officers - to be met in the next 10 years. Targets for women are to be announced soon.

There were reports of sexual harassment in every one of the 10 forces visited for the inspection: Avon, Bedfordshire and Luton, Greater Manchester, Hereford and Worcester, Leicestershire and Rutland, London, South Wales, Tyne and Wear, West Midlands and West Sussex.

The report, Thematic Review of Equality and Fairness in the Fire Service, criticised both the "lack of leadership" and the culture of the service. A hierarchical structure, the strong emphasis put on "fitting in" and the use of a "watch" or shift system in which officers can work for years with the same people were blamed for much of the wrongdoing. These factors also led to "fear and mistrust" in some brigades".

The inspectors found the "overriding view" of uniformed officers was that "women were not capable of doing `a man's job'". Among complaints by female firefighters were "exposure, touching and assault that had had catastrophic effects on the women concerned".

In a recent recruitment drive at one brigade, 87 applications were received from ethnic minority people and 90 from women. None of the applicants was successful.

The Fire Brigades Union welcomed the report and argued that it had been calling for reforms for years but that chief officers and managers had denied there was a problem.