U.S. Markets open in 19 mins

Female firefighters are being bullied by 'toxic' culture in 'pockets' of the service, report warns

Yohannes Lowe
As of March 2019, out of the 44,200 firefighters in England, only 16.7 percent were female - ©2019 Charlotte Graham - CAG Photography

Female firefighters are being bullied by colleagues and not treated with “enough humanity”  in a “toxic” culture present in some fire and rescue services across England, the first ever annual report has warned.

Female officers were reduced to tears and described feeling “inadequate” in relation to their male colleagues, according to inspectors who surveyed them as part of the State of Fire and Rescue report.

In a briefing to journalists, the inspectors today told of how a fear of “intimidation” was voiced by female firefighters who “wrongly” questioned their ability to perform their roles effectively.

They added that others were left “upset” by their “treatment” and raised concerns about the “lack of inclusivity” within “isolated pockets” of the fire service.

It came amid a wider problem of discrimination found in “many services” across England, Sir Thomas Winsor, the chief inspector of Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS), said.

Out of the 7182 firefighters interviewed for a HMICFRS survey, 24 percent reported being bullied or harassed at work between August 2018 and 2019, with the number reaching 46% at one service.

Despite citing a number of “outstanding” services with “inclusive” workplace cultures, such as Staffordshire, Sir Winsor acknowledged that the fire service can be “inward looking” because of the amount of time staff spend together.

 Police and rescue services at a huge tower block fire in west London Credit: Andy Rain/EPA

In his report, published today, Sir Winsor said: “The fire sector refers to itself as humanitarian, yet firefighters in some services do not treat their colleagues with enough humanity.”

“Disappointingly, in many services, we found examples of unacceptable behaviour, such as bullying and harassment, discrimination and language unsuitable for an inclusive workplace. This behaviour had not always been dealt with strongly enough by line managers.”

Sir Winsor urged that a new national code of ethics, which states what behaviours are acceptable, should be adopted by every service in England by the end of 2020 and considered as part of all employees work progression.

It is hoped that explicit guidelines will mean employers will be able to act on “unacceptable” conduct more firmly and will show new recruits what type of “exemplary” behaviour they should look to follow.

In the media briefing, Sir Winsor added: “The fire service is very much the watchdog service, it is very much- in some respects-an inward looking, closed culture. When they interact with the public, in the main, the public are very pleased to see them which is not always the case for police for obvious reasons.

“But they spend a lot of time together as a team, as mates, and so sometimes that can feel like a rather insular, tight culture. If you do not fit in then that can be a real problem.”

The report also called for a greater level of national consistency for how high-risk buildings are defined to ensure that those at risk are targeted with the resources they need.

It warned that the use of enforcement powers to make premises comply with fire safety legislation had “commonly fallen below the standard we had expected”.

As of March 2019, out of the 44,200 firefighters in England, only 16.7 percent were female.

HM inspectors last year suggested that fitness tests for women entering the fire service may need to be reviewed in order to increase their numbers.

Currently, selection tests include dragging a 55kg “casualty” walking backwards around a 30-metre course and climbing a ladder to a second storey height in full kit.

Firefighters hold a 'Guard of Honour' for Dany Cotton, LFB boss who quit in the aftermath of the Grenfell Fire report Credit: Jeff Gilbert

In 2018, Dany Cotton, the former head of the London Fire Brigade and its first female commissioner, spoke of the abuse she faced after launching a campaign to encourage people to refer to “firefighters" rather than “firemen".

She said that her campaign was intended to encourage both boys and girls to follow whatever career path they wanted.