Shining a light on cultural failings
As the inspectorate publishes its ‘deep-dive’ findings on values and culture in the service, His Majesty’s Inspector of Fire and Rescue Services Roy Wilsher reports on the ‘watershed’ moment and calls for ‘tangible change’.
The last few months have not been easy for those who work in the fire sector. Few could have remained unaffected by headlines about reports of bullying, harassment and discrimination in every fire service in England.
I was in the Fire and Rescue Service for 40 years and have worked with and met, both in my previous capacity and my current role as His Majesty’s Inspector of Fire and Rescue Services, thousands of extraordinarily dedicated firefighters and staff. I know the very best of services, the commitment to protecting the public and preventing fires and other incidents. With this experience behind me, I was saddened by what we found.
HMICFRS has been shining a light on problems with values and culture in fire and rescue services since we began inspecting them in 2018. At times, the inspectorate felt like a lone voice calling for change [In publishing terms, FIRE was a lone voice up until recent times. The magazine has been calling for change for decades, in the days when equality diversity was largely ignored and seldom written about. -Ed]. At the end of March, we published our first deep-dive into evidence we have uncovered over these years.
Staff reported allegations of bullying, harassment and discrimination in every single service in England. We found evidence of sexism, racism and homophobia in a quarter of services and chief fire officers told us that during the last 12 months, more than half of gross misconduct cases involved bullying associated with protected characteristics. Two fire and rescue services (Gloucestershire and London) are in our enhanced monitoring process, and we issued causes of concern for values and culture, and fairness and diversity for eight others. Pulled together on paper for the first time, these shocking numbers cannot be ignored. Worse, I fear they’re only the tip of the iceberg. Services can no longer comfort themselves that this is one or two bad apples – these problems are widespread and deeply ingrained in watch and other sub-cultures, and it is past time to act.
Even more concerning was staff telling us that they feared to raise concerns because of possible reprisals. One person told us that to complain about this behaviour was “career suicide”, while another said they were scared their “card would be marked”. We were told that services are still an “old boys’ club” and found that much of this damaging behaviour is disguised as banter. It isn’t just in services, either – high-profile, unofficial social media accounts, with thousands of followers, post discriminatory and abusive messages, again disguised as humour.
Firefighters can be called upon to do incredibly difficult and dangerous work. It is imperative that trust is built between teams and they can rely on each other implicitly. But at times that is not the case. If firefighters cannot trust one another, how can the public trust them?
HMICFRS is calling for change – real, tangible change that will improve the situation in both the short term and the long. We make 35 recommendations in our report, including:
Far more robust misconduct procedures, including new mechanisms to allow staff to safely raise concerns at work;
A national barred list that will prevent any member of staff found to have committed gross misconduct ever being employed by a fire service again; and
Appropriate background checks on all existing and new staff.
This is a watershed moment for the sector. It feels as though momentum is building – the government has spoken out in favour of more background checks and the National Fire Chiefs Council has pledged to help improve values and culture. Fire and rescue services cannot afford to wait any longer to improve. It is just as important that all organisations associated with fire and rescue services demonstrate the right values and behaviour.
We will continue to closely monitor every service, working alongside chief fire officers and national bodies to watch progress on our recommendations. We have started our third round of inspections, using these recommendations and many of our findings to inform these inspections and keep them at the highest quality. And we won’t be afraid to continue to speak out and highlight the importance of improved values, culture, fairness and diversity in every service.
“I fear they’re only the tip of the iceberg… these problems are widespread and deeply ingrained in watch and other sub-cultures, and it is past time to act”
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