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Firefighters ‘acted out rape of female colleague’ amid widespread discrimination and harassment

Inadequate background checks and misconduct processes mean ‘predators’ could be working in the fire service, report warns

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Editor
Thursday 30 March 2023 22:02 BST
A report has called for an overhaul of vetting and misconduct processes for firefighters
A report has called for an overhaul of vetting and misconduct processes for firefighters (PA Wire)

Discrimination, bullying and harassment is rife in fire services, a watchdog has warned after uncovering incidents in which firefighters “acted out a rape” and used the n-word.

HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services found that a “pack-like” mentality in some fire services made firefighters fearful of reporting colleagues and caused them to believe that nothing would happen if they did.

Inspector Roy Wilsher said the cases uncovered so far “could be just the tip of the iceberg”. The report contained numerous examples of misogynistic, racist and homophobic incidents, including:

  • Two male firefighters “acting out the rape” of a female colleague
  • A senior officer referring to a Black colleague using the “n-word” and putting it down to “having a laugh”
  • Homophobic abuse written on a firefighter’s locker
  • A firefighter being told it would be “career suicide” to push for action to be taken on a senior officer’s racist comment
  • Hostility to female staff and suggestions they were employed “because they have a vagina”

Mr Wilsher told a press conference that he could not rule out the possibility that “predators” are currently working in Britain’s fire and rescue services, saying: “I could not exclude that possibility.”

The report called for an overhaul 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 checks “create an unacceptable risk that must be addressed”, adding: “The sector cannot wait another day before it acts.”

He said the watchdog had not been able to obtain any data on how many serving firefighters may have previous convictions, or how many had committed crimes during their service, and called for better sharing of information.

“Trust and respect is too often replaced with derogatory, bullying behaviour, often excused as banter,” the inspector added. “Staff should feel able to report allegations without fear of reprisals, and any fire and rescue staff found to have committed gross misconduct should be placed on a national barred list to protect other services and the public.”

The report identified a “pack-like” mentality in some watch groups, which see firefighters work, train, eat and sleep in close proximity to one other, sometimes for many years.

“Some watches had normalised some unacceptable behaviours, including discrimination, bullying and harassment,” Mr Wilsher said, adding that new recruits felt they “had to assimilate into the prevailing culture in order to fit in”.

Examples from a previous report on the London Fire Brigade included mocking people’s religion, taking bets on who would be the first person in a team to sleep with a woman, and filling helmets with urine.

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Firefighters were found to have “searched through women’s drawers looking for underwear and sex toys during home fire safety visits”.

The inspectorate pushed back against claims that poor behaviour was confined to “pockets” of the service, warning: “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 “portray misogyny, racism and homophobia as banter”.

The report found that more than half of misconduct cases across England over the past year concerned inappropriate behaviour, including bullying and harassment associated with protected characteristics such as race, gender and sexuality.

According to data gathered by the Cabinet Office in 2018, firefighters were the least ethnically diverse of any public sector workforce.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) was criticised in part of the report for using slogans “that have the potential to cause rifts” and create the risk of “ostracising people who don’t conform rather than supporting colleagues to, for example, raise concerns”.

FBU general secretary Matt Wrack said he welcomed the report and that concerns had been raised within the union “for many years” over the same issues. He added that the failure to address them went “right to the top”.

The report, which was commissioned by the government after damning inspections of the London and Gloucestershire fire brigades, called for a new “College of Fire and Rescue” to set training standards, the introduction of confidential whistleblowing hotlines, and legal changes to bolster background checks.

Mr Wilsher called for the government and fire authorities to act urgently on his 35 recommendations, adding: “I have been shocked and appalled by some of these findings. I thought a lot of this behaviour was 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 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. Complainants have found themselves under investigation or subject to disciplinary proceedings.”

He added: “The Fire Brigades Union will take a leading role in transforming the culture of the fire and rescue service.”

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