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‘My house was on fire and the fireman who came to help started hitting on me’

Exclusive: Mother speaks out as campaign launched to tackle ‘decades of harassment, bullying and discrimination’ in fire service

Tara Cobham
Sunday 14 May 2023 07:43 BST
A watchdog warned in March that discrimination, bullying and harassment is rife in fire services
A watchdog warned in March that discrimination, bullying and harassment is rife in fire services (PA Wire)

A woman was sexually harassed by a firefighter as he responded to a blaze at her home, as he asked her 'why are you single?' and suggested he call around again after his shift had finished.

The mother of one said the Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service watch manager's "predatory" and "insidious" advances left her feeling “really uneasy” at a time when she was at her most vulnerable – alone in the house with her daughter and dressed only in a dressing gown.

The woman, who did not want to be named for fear of reprisals, was prompted to speak out about the incident for the first time after learning the man had since been promoted.

“He was behaving like he was drunk in a bar, being quite laddish and strutting around the house,” the now-46-year-old told The Independent.

“He kept commenting on me being a single parent. He said it at least three times. One time he turned to his colleague and said, ‘Oh, she’s single.’ Later [asking] ‘So, why are you single?’”

It comes after an HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) report, published in March, warned discrimination, bullying and harassment were rife in fire services after a review uncovered incidents in which firefighters “acted out a rape” and used the n-word.

In response, The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) on Wednesday launched a drive to tackle “decades of harassment, bullying and discrimination” in the fire service following multiple damning reports. The union pledged to create its own set of reforms, as it slammed failures as going “right to the very top of fire service management”.

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Describing her experience in 2016, the woman said she was with her then-six-year-old daughter when a fire broke out in her garage at night.

Neighbours alerted the fire service after spotting the flames and the pair escaped the blaze safely. But the unwelcome advances of the fire officer began when the watch manager and two other fire officers went into her home to do safety checks.

“He was looking at photos on my walls and commenting on what my friends looked like,” she said.

“He offered to call round after his shift. He didn’t imply anything but to check on me - but it just felt a bit odd. I wouldn't imagine that is protocol.

”It felt really unprofessional, and the fact that he was the watch manager left me feeling really uneasy.”

The woman said she minimised her experience at the time but someone who witnessed what happened later approached her to raise concern, saying: “He was really inappropriate with you.”

The woman said this validation of her experience encouraged her to make a formal complaint.

The station manager later visited her home to take down details of what had happened and she received a letter of apology letter from the watch manager.

A poster campaign, aimed at changing the conversation around discrimination in the Fire and Rescue Service, was unveiled by the Fire Brigades Union at its annual conference in Blackpool on Wednesday (Fire Brigades Union)

Although, rather than an admission of guilt, she said it was phrased in a way that implied “sorry if I made you feel that way”.

Beyond that letter, the woman said she does not know if any other action was taken.

The man is still working at Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service and, according to his online profile, has since been promoted.

That knowledge made the woman "hope I never ever have another fire”.

Alex Waller, chief fire officer and chief executive of Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service, said of the woman's case: “A station manager swiftly investigated the complaint in line with procedure and found the watch manager's behaviour fell short of our expected behaviours and values. Proportionate action was taken and he apologised to the complainant.”

Reacting to the woman's case, HM Inspector of Fire and Rescue Services Roy Wilsher told The Independent “the public should be able to trust fire and rescue staff implicitly”.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) on Wednesday launched a drive to tackle “decades of harassment, bullying and discrimination” in the Fire Service (Fire Brigades Union)

“There is no room in any service for someone who behaves inappropriately or perpetuates toxic culture,” he added.

The HMICFRS has called for greater transparency on sexual harassment within the service, telling The Independent that no official body currently collates figures on such complaints and called on the Home Office to do so.

Most individual fire services appear not to publish the information either, although the London Fire Brigade began doing so in November after a separate independent review found it was “institutionally misogynist and racist”.

The National Fire Chiefs Council confirmed to The Independent that while a national code of ethics was published in 2021 there is no independent national body that deals with issues raised about the fire service. Instead, each service acts as its own employer with its own disciplinary procedures, dealing with issues internally.

FBU General Secretary Matt Wrack revealed that the union will launch its own set of standards on equalities and will hold fire services to account against these. He added it will launch a nationwide poster campaign aimed at changing the conversation around discrimination in the service.

The Home Office told The Independent it was “carefully considering the [HMICFRS] report’s deeply concerning findings”.

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