There is “deeply troubling” evidence of bullying, harassment and discrimination in fire and rescue services across England, with inspectors warning that what has been uncovered may just be “the tip of the iceberg”.
Staff recalled racist, sexist and homophobic comments and behaviours which had gone unchallenged or been dismissed as “banter”, according to a report from His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS)
The report, which makes 35 recommendations, focuses on the values and culture of all 44 fire and rescue services (FRSs) in England and draws on the evidence collected through its inspections since 2018.
It found that bullying, harassment and discrimination are, to varying degrees, still problems in all services.
Asked about whether it is possible that there are “predators” in the Fire Services like those that have been found to exist in police, Mr Wilsher told reporters: “I could not exclude that possibility.”
The report said: “The public deserves assurance that the FRS staff they come into contact with have been subject to background checks prior to carrying out these roles.
“This is particularly important when considering the link between effective background checks and cultures of misogyny and predatory behaviour seen in policing.
Inspectors are calling for appropriate background checks on all firefighters and staff and new misconduct standards to be introduced, including a national barred list and new mechanisms for staff to raise concerns.
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”.
Inspectors found examples of staff being reluctant to speak up about or challenge inappropriate behaviour as 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.
The report said all staff – and particularly those in emergency service roles where the lives of both staff and members of the public are at risk – need reporting processes they trust as safe, without fear of any reprisals.
Examples of behaviour reported to inspectors include 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.
He said there was evidence of low trust in grievance procedures in 13 Fire & Rescue Services, adding that a staff survey showed that staff from ethnic minority backgrounds who have experienced bullying or harassment are less likely to report it than white members of staff.
Mr Wilsher said: “Our findings shine a light on deeply troubling bullying and harassment in fire and rescue services across the country – and I fear this could be just the tip of the iceberg.
“Firefighters can be called upon to do an incredibly difficult job. They should be able to trust each other implicitly, just as the public need to be able to trust them.
“Unfortunately, our findings show this is not always the case. Instead, we found trust and respect is too often replaced with derogatory, bullying behaviour, often excused as banter.
“Services told us about misconduct cases over the past 12 months. More than half of these concerned inappropriate behaviour, such as bullying and harassment, associated with a protected characteristic.
“This is shocking enough but I am not confident that this is even the whole picture.”
He said the sector needs to “get a grip” on how it handles misconduct matters, adding that staff should feel able to report allegations without fear of reprisals.
“Despite the fact fire and rescue staff often have contact with the most vulnerable members of society, there is no legal obligation for services to run background checks and we found an inconsistent approach to this across the country,” he said.
“We’re calling for appropriate background checks on existing and new staff as a bare minimum.
“The majority of fire and rescue staff act with integrity and we are in no doubt of their dedication to the public.
“We have made 35 recommendations and would urge chief fire officers, the Government and national fire bodies to implement them as a matter of urgency.”
Mr Wilsher said specific fire services are not named in the report due to many examples of behaviour being reported to inspectors confidentially by staff.
Fire Brigades Union general secretary Matt 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.”