30 March 2023

Unacceptable behaviour dismissed as ‘banter’ in some fire stations

30 March 2023

Humiliating new recruits, acting out a rape, expecting women to make the tea and thinking the use of racist language is just “having a laugh” are among examples of unacceptable behaviour in England’s fire and rescue services.

The “deeply troubling” findings have “shocked and appalled” His Majesty’s Inspector of Fire & Rescue Services Roy Wilsher, who said the sector “needs to be brought into the 21st century”.

The report on the values and culture of all 44 fire and rescue services (FRSs) in England documents racist, sexist and homophobic comments and behaviours which had gone unchallenged or been dismissed as “banter”.

So people lie and stick together in pack mentality, even though they know it’s wrong, as they’re afraid of being ostracised

An example given to inspectors includes a firefighter who reported a senior officer for a racist comment and felt that his account of events was questioned.

He was told the alleged offender “wouldn’t behave in such a way” and the senior officer then threatened “to make his life hell”, the report said.

Inspectors were told about a senior officer referring to a black colleague using the “N-word” and putting it down to “having a laugh”, homophobic abuse found written on a firefighter’s locker and men using women’s toilets and women not feeling confident to challenge this.

Another example was an incident involving two male firefighters joking with a female firefighter that they were “going to rape her” and the three of them acting out the rape together.

The report referred to a perception among staff that women are appointed due to their gender, rather than on merit.

Several people expressed this view, with individual experiences described using inappropriate language, including “if you menstruate or have a vagina, you’re more likely to get the job” and “you have to be a woman to get on”.

Inspectors were told about staff not wishing to work in specific areas of the service because of poor behaviours and the humiliation of staff during training sessions if they made mistakes.

If your face doesn’t fit – you won’t get in

They also heard about staff being reluctant to speak up about or challenge inappropriate behaviours because they felt that doing so would affect their prospects, have adverse consequences for them or lead to a “negative mark” against their name and being told it would be “career suicide” to do so.

In one service, inspectors heard of station managers making off-the-cuff comments and inappropriate banter about female and gay staff.

There was an expectation that female staff should make the tea, and bullying of new recruits led to one on-call firefighter needing to move station.

In another service, staff said the culture in general was “toxic” and behaviours on watches were “pack-like”.

Staff told inspectors that on watches, people did not challenge inappropriateness towards race.

“So people lie and stick together in pack mentality, even though they know it’s wrong, as they’re afraid of being ostracised,” according to a member of staff quoted in the report.

Inspectors also found instances where new recruits joined the service with a positive attitude and no apparent disposition to certain behaviours but soon felt the need to assimilate into the prevailing culture to “fit in”.

In several services, inspectors found a worrying trend of staff not raising concerns if they felt they were not part of an “old boys’ club”.

They also heard from staff who felt others could get away with inappropriate behaviours, such as bullying, harassment and discrimination, “if they know the right people”.

Some staff in one service described its promotion processes as “feeling corrupt”.

They expressed this frustration after applying for promotions many times and, despite being unsuccessful, not receiving any feedback or support.

They told inspectors: “If your face doesn’t fit – you won’t get in.”

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