His Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services Roy Wilsher launched the Values and culture in fire and rescue services report which found bullying, harassment and discrimination in every fire and rescue service in England, suggesting that recent headlines about misconduct may just be “the tip of the iceberg”.

The report focuses on the values and culture of all 44 fire and rescue services in England and draws on the evidence collected through inspections since 2018, but particularly on round two. “This is the first time we’ve looked in depth at anything in the Fire and Rescue Service and particularly surrounding values and culture,” HMI Wilsher informed. “We are particularly focused on issues that have been seen in more than half, that is at least 26 fire rescue services that are having a detrimental impact across the sector. These include bullying, harassment and discrimination, a lack of fairness and diversity, and reporting and handling of concerns, including allegations of misconduct.

“Since we started inspecting in 2018, we have repeatedly found evidence of poor values, culture and behaviour, including bullying, harassment and discrimination in many of the 44 fire and rescue services in England.”


More Needs to be Done

HMI Wilsher reported that since the code of ethics was introduced in 2021, some services have made improvements but “too many need to do more”. In the second round of inspections from 2021 to 2022, inspectors found that some services need to get better at promoting positive professional cultures. “Most services need to do more to improve equality, diversity and inclusion and progression opportunities for staff, which is hindering the potential for greater diversity of thought in the services’ leadership teams.”

Five causes of concern were issued on values and culture, whilst requires improvement or inadequate grades were issued to 17 services. In all, 66 areas for improvement were issued across 35 services, he reported. Five services were issued with causes for concern on fairness and diversity with requires improvement or inadequate grades issued to 26 services. Two services – Gloucestershire Fire and Rescue Service and London Fire Brigade – were placed in the engaged or enhanced monitoring process.


“We have repeatedly found evidence of poor values, culture and behaviour, including bullying, harassment and discrimination in many of the 44 fire and rescue services in England”


“Even services that we have graded good in these areas may have some staff who behave inappropriately. Staff reported allegations of bullying, harassment and discrimination in every fire and rescue service in England. I fear this may be just the tip of the iceberg.”

The inspectorate found evidence of racism, sexism and homophobia in a quarter of services with “a culture where staff, including managers, didn’t feel confident enough to challenge poor behaviour.”

Public trust has been undermined, HMI Wilsher reported, with bullying behaviour, often excused as banter, as the sector has been called an “old boys’ club” by some. Examples of bullying, harassment and discrimination found during the inspections included a senior officer referring to a Black colleague using racist language and putting it down to “having a laugh”; 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, as well as homophobic abuse written on a firefighter’s locker.

“The culture across too much in the fire sector is stagnant and needs to be brought into the 21st century.”


Bullying and Harassment

In February 2023, HMI Wilsher said that the inspectorate asked every service to provide  information about all allegations of gross misconduct currently under investigation or consideration from the last year. The inspectorate also asked for cases of alleged misconduct and other grievances and complaints where the alleged behaviour of individuals calls into question the culture and values of the organisation.

From the information services provided, it is apparent that inappropriate language and behaviour, and bullying and harassment associated with a protected characteristic, accounted for more than half of these cases.

HMI Wilsher said that from this information, the inspectorate found that almost half of the individuals who left the service because of alleged misconduct were permitted to leave for retirement or resignation reasons. “This is shocking enough, but I’m not confident that this is even the whole picture. We have issued nine recommendations in the report in relation to this. They aim to improve the consistency and assurances of misconduct handling and include a call for a national barred list for staff who have been dismissed for gross misconduct.

“It is evident that the development of informal subculture had led to staff sometimes being expected to conform to certain ways of thinking and behaving, which has led to the prevalence of in groups and out groups.

“We found out in some services that watches had created their own subcultures which were contrary to the service values and are impenetrable for new staff. As a result, we found some watches had normalised certain unacceptable behaviours, such as bullying, harassment and discrimination.”

HMI Wilsher listed further examples of inappropriate behaviour including an expectation for female staff to make tea and new recruits feeling they need to assimilate into the prevailing culture in order to fit in. Some staff felt unable to report bad behaviour for fear of reprisals, he informed, whilst one person said that their card would be marked if they raised concerns. Another described it as career suicide as they were told that “friends investigate friends”. Evidence of low trust in grievance procedures was found in 13 fire and rescue services.

“Our staff survey shows that staff from ethnic minority backgrounds that have experienced bullying or harassment are less likely to report it than white members of staff. Many staff members who didn’t report bullying or harassment said this was because they believed nothing would be done. Some managers are unable to do or challenge inappropriate behaviours.


“The culture across too much in the fire sector is stagnant and needs to be brought into the 21st century”


“We also heard that those who did speak out were sometimes victimised. A lack of leadership and management training means that managers sometimes weren’t equipped to appropriately challenge, or they lack confidence to address poor behaviours such as bullying. They were also ill equipped to tackle harassment and discrimination.”

However, HMI Wilsher said that is not always the case and some services do handle concerns appropriately.

“We’ve issued five recommendations which aims to provide processes for staff to raise concerns, including the provision of an independent reporting line and staff access to confidential support.”

Currently, there is no legal obligation for services to run background checks, even though fire and rescue staff often have contact with some of the most vulnerable members of society. “Although many services do choose to carry out disclosure barring service checks, our recent review of background check arrangements found that these varied from service to service and it’s currently for services to decide if or how they can conduct any background checks on new recruits or current employees. This creates an unacceptable risk which must be addressed.”

Although consistent background check processes may not prevent all unsuitable individuals from joining fire and rescue services, HMI Wilsher said, a statutory requirement and a background check standard are needed “as a bare minimum to mitigate the issue and help services make informed decisions about who works for them”.

The recommendations call for appropriate background checks on existing and new staff.


Improving Equality, Diversity and Inclusion

“The continuing lack of workforce diversity in every fire and rescue service throughout England also inhibits the ability to tackle these cultural issues. Compared to other public sector staff, firefighters are the least ethnically diverse workforce and have made the least improvement in diversity.

“Progress to improve equality, diversity and inclusion in fire and rescue services is far too slow. Some groups of staff, such as those from ethnic minority backgrounds and those who are disabled, neurodiverse or from the LGBTQ+ community, are more likely to experience bullying and harassment. And we found that poor talent management, promotion processes and succession planning can lead to unfairness. Services need to be more inclusive to support and retain staff.”

The inspectorate has issued several recommendations which aim to improve equality, diversity and inclusion, including reducing inequalities of opportunity in progression paths.

“How individual leaders behave sets the tone for the rest of the service,” HMI Wilsher stressed, “but some staff felt their leaders didn’t consistently model and maintain service values. Additionally, supervisors and middle managers need to be better trained in how to effectively manage, develop and support their staff. Newly provided staff are sometimes expected to learn on the job.


“I have been shocked and appalled by some of the findings we found during the inspections… it’s time for this behaviour to stop”


Five recommendations are aimed at improving leadership, including using and acting on feedback. “We’ve also included two which aims to improve management and leadership training, including the establishment of a College of Fire and Rescue as proposed by the government’s white paper on Reforming Our Fire and Rescue Service, which was published in May 2022.

“We have issued 35 recommendations in our report. They are informed by our findings, our intention to assist fire and rescue services to improve their values, culture, fairness and diversity. Our recommendations are aimed at both national bodies that have the power to make changes and at fire and rescue services. They include calls for greater consistency and assurance of misconduct handling and national barred list for those who have been dismissed for gross misconduct, and appropriate background checks on existing and new staff as a bare minimum.

“I urge chief fire officers, the government and national fire bodies to implement them as a matter of urgency.”

FIRE’s asked HMI Wilsher how confident he was that the recommendations would be included within the government’s national framework given that only two of the inspectorate’s previous six recommendations from the State of Fire report have been met, and why is it that given how straight forward the recommendations are, how quickly does he expect the recommendations to be applied?

“I think you’re right on the recommendations. They’re not out the blue Earth-shattering things. They are reasonable recommendations for all organisations to implement and I’m very hopeful that they will be. Moving forward, we don’t just bring these recommendations without having talked to people at the Home Office, the Fire Standards Board and the National Fire Chiefs Council. So they aren’t unexpected in terms of the national framework for fire and rescue services in England. We have been told that it will be refreshed in this parliament.

“Parliamentary time can be rare and there’s lots of things going on in government, but we do urge Home Office colleagues to make sure these are included in any refresh of the framework. And you’re right about previous recommendations but we will continue to hold their feet to the fire.”

As a Chief Fire Officer and Chair of the National Fire Chiefs Council, Mr Wilsher often remarked on working in fire and rescue as being the “best job in the world”. Given his background, FIRE asks how disappointed he was by the findings of the report?

“In terms of my time in fire and rescue, it was absolutely fantastic and a fantastic career which gave me lots of opportunities. I must say that I have been shocked and appalled by some of the findings we found during the inspections. I’d thought a lot of these things were activities and behaviours from the dim and distant past, but as I say in my foreword, it’s time for this behaviour to stop.”

To see the full report visit: https://www.justiceinspectorates.gov.uk/hmicfrs/

To read our Fire Knowledge Insights equality, diversity and inclusion white paper, Ten key principles for creating a respectful Fire Service culture, visit: www.fire-magazine.com


Report Conclusion

Implementing the recommendations in this report is crucial for change.

Some services have improved since our first round of inspections. And national efforts, including the Core Code of Ethics, have certainly helped bring the issue of poor cultures in fire and rescue services (FRSs) into focus. We also understand that many people working in FRSs have made a significant effort to improve their values, culture and diversity. But the findings from our most recent inspections have shown that a great deal more work is needed to improve values and culture. Even some services that are good in this area have more to do. This isn’t a time to be complacent.

The recommendations in this report are designed to guide the relevant individuals and organisations in the right direction. But they are the minimum of work that we expect those involved to carry out. Services and national organisations should continuously consider what more they can do to improve values and culture in FRSs.

Some changes may take time, but for others, there is no reason why they can’t be implemented immediately. A joint, concerted effort is needed by every single person and organisation at every level of the fire and rescue sector and those aligned to it. Every single person working in an FRS, and every member of the public, deserves to be treated with respect and compassion.