London Fire Brigade is using Pride London 2005 to demonstrate its commitment to diversity among its firefighters

Councillor Brian Coleman, deputy chair of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority and chair of the authority's HR and equalities panel, says: "We must build stronger links with all groups of people in London to prevent fire deaths, fire-related injuries and damage to property and the local economy. The Pride breakfast is an invitation to business leaders and stakeholders from the gay community to work with us to make London a safer city."

The brigade is also keen to get more people from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in London working for them. "We know that the most effective way of working with all of London's diverse communities is to create a workforce to reflect those communities, and we will be taking every opportunity to encourage applications from people who might never have considered a career with the London Fire Brigade before," says Coleman.

With fire prevention now a far bigger focus than putting out fires, this has never been more important. Research shows that if information and education is provided by people that audiences empathise with, it is far more likely to have a lasting impact.

Coleman admits that London Fire Brigade is "at least a decade" behind the Metropolitan Police when it comes to links with the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community of London. "They have done brilliantly in turning around a bad reputation among this community and we hope to follow in their footsteps," he says.

While the organisation has made enormous progress at the top – indeed, the commissioner will be attending the Pride breakfast – many people in middle management have not yet signed up to genuine diversity, he says. "It's something we are working on."

An additional challenge faced by London Fire Brigade is its culture. " The police have the canteen culture, which is bad enough, but we have the mess culture, which is far worse," explains Coleman. "Police don't sleep in dormitories and don't get as attached as firefighters do during watches. This is a culture that can make it difficult for a newcomer to announce he's gay in front of a bunch of old-timers."

Nevertheless, events such as the Pride breakfast and the fact that the brigade is leaning towards an abolition of sleeping in fire stations are helping to bring about change, he says.

Dawn Marks, the positive action manager for firefighter recruitment at London Fire Brigade, adds that the organisation has for some time been targeting advertising at the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in London. "We target gay nightclubs too," she says. "We hand out fliers and invite people to come along to open days. It's been very successful."

It's crucial to get rid of the macho image that has long been associated with firefighters, she explains. "It suggests that anyone different to that stereotype isn't welcome, which really isn't the case."

To ensure that firefighters are not only recruited, but retained in the organisation, other measures – including a support group and sexual awareness training for all workers – have been put in place. "We bring in outside consultants who are gay and out," she says. "The message is clear – we won't tolerate any type of harassment or bullying. "

Like many organisations wishing to become more diverse, London Fire Brigade works closely with the gay lobby group Stonewall. Stephen Frost, manager for the diversity champions programme at Stonewall, says: "We're delighted that organisations like London Fire Brigade are being so proactive. In the public mind, there is still this stereotype that media, health and education are the most gay-friendly sectors, but that is not necessarily true any more. "

Firefighter Rebecca Freeman, 30, says she was pleasantly surprised when her sexuality didn't have a detrimental impact at work. "The fire brigade had a reputation of being a bit racist, sexist and homophobic. But as soon as you're on the induction, they are more than clear that they are an equal opportunities employer. I felt very confident from day one that I was supported and that I wasn't on my own."

It's no secret in her workplace that Freeman is a lesbian. "I'm confident about who I am, which people seem to respond very positively to," she says.

Station manager Paul Canning, 40, who has worked for the brigade for 22 years, agrees. "When I joined London Fire Brigade at 18 years old, I went down the route of getting married and having a child. I didn't come to terms with my sexuality until I was 30 and came out at work about six years ago. Yes, I've had one or two problems along the way since then, but far more people have supported me."

In fact, he thinks his sexuality has provided added value to his job in some instances. "I think the fact that I'm a gay man means there is much more sensitivity about people's sexuality when we turn up to certain incidents. I feel colleagues are perhaps more aware than in the past and there is much more emphasis on ensuring everyone is treated fairly."

'My sexuality has never been an issue at work'

Ellen Day, 43 (above), trains firefighters to use breathing apparatus at the London Fire Brigade's training centre. She has been working for the London Fire Brigade for 18 years and is a lesbian.

I was one of the co-founders of the lesbian and gay support group within the London Fire Brigade. Although I have never had to call on any support because of my sexuality, I think it's important that support is in place for others who may have difficulties and who may want to keep things confidential.

I've taken a ste p back from the group now. I think it's important to let younger people come in, who have new agendas.

My sexuality has never been an issue at work. It didn't come up at my interview, so I didn't volunteer it, but it did come up at training school because I didn't hide it either.

It became common knowledge once I had started at the station, particularly as two colleagues - one a part-time bouncer – had seen me out on the gay scene. Also, there were invites to the pub after work, where we were asked to bring partners.

I've never suffered discrimination about it to my face, although I think women probably find it a bit easier than the men. In the community, it's never even come up.

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