In the latest of FIRE’s special reports ‘Fire and Rescue Service: Equality, Diversity and Inclusion 2021’, Diversity & Inclusion Correspondent Lorna King looks at how services are supporting LGBTQ+ personnel
Of the 52 individual fire service websites, 29 provide easily accessible information on their equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) activity. That is not to say that there is not work being done within the other 23 services, but it does suggest varying levels of commitment. If every fire and rescue service provides visible and accessible support for their workforce and their community, this can only encourage a stronger and more effective service.
Following on from FIRE’s previous articles about women and black, Asian and ethnic minority personnel within the Fire and Rescue Service (FRS), I have now gathered evidence to highlight some of the services that are engaging in positive action in support of their LGBTQ+ staff and external communities they serve. Although the use of terminology varies throughout the services, for the purposes of this article I will use the term LGBTQ+ to be inclusive of the many individual identities that sit under this umbrella.
For the LGBTQ+ communities, inclusion means being valued and accepted as your true self. In support of the inclusion work that is currently taking place, I have spoken to the Chair of the FBU LGBTQ+ committee, the Chair of Essex County FRS (ECFRS) BEING staff support network and the Chief Executive of Kent FRS (KFRS), and I will also highlight some of the most effective methods of visible EDI work taking place on service websites.
Yannick Dubois, Chair FBU LGBTQ+ Committee
Yannick Dubois chairs the FBU LGBTQ+ committee, which works to ensure that the members have a voice and are not left out of the equality agenda across regions and brigades. Yannick says: “We provide support, identity and deal with any issues our members may face at work; we provide opportunities for our members to meet through various means, including a yearly three-day school; we are consulted on service policies and ensure that they are not detrimental to our members; and we ensure that policies are applied in practice and ensure that fire services comply with their equality duties.”
Yannick joined the FRS in 1990 as a firefighter and is now a watch manager inspecting officer in business safety for East Sussex FRS (ESFRS). As well as her position within the FBU, she is also the Chair for the ESFRS LGBTQ+ staff support network, Fire Out. She says: “We meet regularly with anyone who wants to get involved. We talk about what’s missing in the brigade and what needs to be looked at in terms of policies, or working with transgender people, or anything to do with what could impact LGBTQ+ staff. This year we have just started positive action for recruitment. For the last two weeks we’ve held a series of meetings with the public where they can speak to us and ask questions, and we talk about our lives and what’s good and bad about working within the FRS.
“Usually we participate in Pride in our county, we have been doing that for nearly 20 years. This year Pride has been cancelled, so instead we are making a promotional video to show on social media around the time Brighton Pride would have taken place in August.”
Yannick has been a champion for the LGBTQ+ community throughout her career: “There are issues, there’s no doubt about that. I’ve been in the service for 31 years and it’s changed a lot. We’re still not quite where we want to be; we need to make a real push to be more inclusive and attract people from all walks of life… It will take time, but we need different talent to make the best team. People think you have to be a superhero to do this job, but our strength is the team, and we have to be diverse to work better together. It’s diversity that gives us our strength, not that we can carry 100 kilos!’
Matt Hill, Chair of East Sussex FRS LGBTQ+ Staff Support Network
Matthew (Matt) Hill works in the prevention department for ECFRS looking after specialist interventions and running community fire prevention programmes. He has been with the service for seven years, and in 2015, inspired by his placement on a Stonewall Young Leaders Programme, which encourages the development of young LGBTQ+ leaders, Matt took over as Chair of the ESFRS LGBTQ+ staff support network, BEING. His decision was also in response to a cultural review of the service: “We wanted to make sure we had a kinder culture and a more open culture, so I used this as an opportunity to relaunch the network,” he says. “We already had the quarterly meetings, and I wanted to show more visibility within the service. We did that with those that were comfortable and out at work; we shared personal stories around themes like coming out day.”
Attending events like Pride is important for building relationships with the community. Matt says: “We want to demonstrate to the community that we’re an inclusive employer, but also, for our staff it’s an opportunity to engage with a community that they may not have been part of themselves.
“We’re quite fortunate that we’ve got lots in our annual calendar. February is LGBTQ+ History month, June is Pride month. A lot of our work is virtual now so we’ve got a lot going out on our intranet. We’ve got a call to action for people to put their pronouns on their email signature to give an idea of what inclusion might look like with regards to gender identity. We provide internal workshops and we’re promoting external workshops that other partners are providing. We’re also going to share our personal experiences of what Pride means to people, why we engage in it, what it means to us.”
In May 2021, in line with International Day against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia (IDAHOBIT), Matt was a key figure in the organisation of the first tri-service LGBTQ+ event. Lead personnel from ECFRS, Essex Police and East of England Ambulance organised a virtual conference in support of IDAHOBIT, with keynote speakers talking about their personal experiences of being LGBTQ+, including an inspirational story from a transgender vicar. There were also sessions on mental health, hate crime and language. Matt says: “We are promoting all the videos again throughout Pride month for all those who didn’t attend the conference. For our first one it felt really great that we have reached a point where we can do stuff like this.”
I asked Matt what advice he would give to other services looking to offer more support to their LGBTQ+ communities: “Maybe reach out to another brigade and see what they are doing, and hopefully you can find some allies or some people in your community where you can work together. Then it would be about looking around the room and finding out what you want to see in your service. Often, in the first instance, it’s just a bit of visibility. It might be a rainbow flag or a rainbow lanyard, or a meeting where anyone can come along.”
Our conversation ended with Matt’s vision of an inclusive future: “All of us are on different paths of our journey to demonstrate inclusion, and I wish that as a national FRS we just talked to each other. Other services have really amazing national networks, and we don’t have that quite so much in the Fire Service. We need to reach out and make good connections so that we can help each other share good practice.”
Ann Millington, Chief Executive, Kent FRS
Kent FRS is pro-active with EDI on many levels, from support networks to training across all ranks, and currently, a particular focus on building relationships with those who are most vulnerable in the community because of their minority status. I caught up with Chief Executive Ann Millington to discuss KFRS’s positive action in supporting LGBTQ+ staff and external community. “There has been a lot of action taken over a long time. There’s a lot of layering in areas like zero tolerance to bullying and mental health, etc. Over and above that, we’ve done a lot of work with managers on understanding their role and challenging inappropriate behaviours. The latest work we’re doing is around equality of access and helping people really understand what that means, both externally and internally.”
Ann completely advocates the idea that if more work is carried out externally by engaging with the LGBTQ+ community and visibly showing support by wearing Pride symbolism on their uniforms; this filters more effectively into the internal network in terms of people feeling more comfortable about coming out in the workplace and feeling accepted as their true selves. She says: “We’ve had more and more gay and lesbian role models speaking at conferences and getting out there in terms of giving positive messages. We’ve got a lot of people who are being really vocal and championing [the LGBTQ+ community] and really getting behind the equality of access issues as well.”
Kent FRS provides an inclusion workshop for senior managers, which has organically evolved over time and filters effectively throughout the service. Ann says: “We all found it really useful as a means of talking about it, because most people don’t understand what inclusion is. But once you start listing everything like reasonable adjustment, reducing mental health stigma, positive action, helping people come out at work, safeguarding, modern slavery, and asking every team across the whole service to look at it, it’s interesting how much positivity can come from [inclusion training].”
Ann explains that having allies within the service is important: “We’re just in the middle of doing an inclusion checklist, and a lot of people say it’s not necessarily about being [LGBTQ+], but maybe that someone in their family group or friendship group is, so more and more people won’t tolerate banter or discrimination. I think being an ally is much more understood by people.”
Kent FRS has a number of champions and allies throughout the service following their involvement with the Stonewall Diversity Champion Programme five years ago. Ann explains: “The Stonewall training has helped people to understand what is involved with being an ally, what it is we’re trying to achieve, and it’s not coming from a place of trying to moralise, but trying to understand the genuine evidence and issues, and from there think about what you can do as an individual. So, me being Chief and being an ally means I can do a lot. I wrote the equality of access case for LGBTQ+, which we’re using in Kent and that we’ve sent out nationally. I’ve spoken about it in webinars and been invited to speak at seminars, and I’m heterosexual, so it’s very much from an ally position.”
Ann says it is really important to get out and engage personally with the external community, especially those within the more vulnerable minority groups like older LGBTQ+ people who are less likely to seek assistance from an authority when, historically, they have been excluded from society. KFRS has just produced a presentation that will be used in their staff training. It reiterates that fact that everyone has the same safeguarding issues, whether they are heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bi, transgender, etc. Ann says: “Let’s not moralise about this, let’s make it about what we’re trying to achieve.”
KFRS is working closely with charities to improve the level of support and guidance they offer. Ann says: “The big one we’re working on is Pride and Care with Opening Doors. They came along about three years ago and gave a fantastic presentation, and they source a lot of their information from the NHS work that has gone on about people not seeking access to different services because of the fear of discrimination.”
Opening Doors evaluate the external community and the internal workforce. One thousand staff within KFRS were required to fill out a questionnaire. Ann says: “The Pride and Care mark will allow us to keep benchmarking where we are but also make sure that we are bringing all that evidence in, which is why we’re doing the equality of access case, in terms of, are we making sure that we are reaching out into different communities to make sure that they are seeking services?”
Ann is meeting with different charities to meet the needs of the most vulnerable: “There’s endless research that says that if you’re black or Asian you’re going to have an even tougher time trying to come out because it’s even less understood and accepted in those cultures, and you’re more likely to be socially isolated. So we’re also going to be speaking to AIDS UK about how we can link with the Stephen Lawrence Charity and Opening Doors to access older black LGBTQ+ people, and absolutely make sure they are accessing services.”
Positive Action Online
The following services have used simple and effective methods to increase visibility on their websites:
Leicestershire FRS (LFRS)
The level of commitment and EDI information available on the LFRS website is possibly the best I have seen. There is a page dedicated to each minority group including disability, religion, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, pregnancy and paternity and marriage and civil partnership. There is a dedicated LGBTQ+ support network called shOUT and LFRS is also part of a larger emergency services LGBTQ+ network called 999 network. Any service looking to develop and expand their support and visibility would do well to start by looking here.
Merseyside FRS (MFRS)
As well as a dedicated EDI section full of information and advice, MFRS has created a Diversity Calendar that can be downloaded as a PDF. The calendar is packed full of dates and events from religious festivals to annual celebratory dates relating to all things EDI. A calendar like this will increase awareness and inspire acceptance.
South Yorkshire FRS
South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue has created a defiant video against online trolls in support of its staff and communities. It is available to view on YouTube and on their website, and it shows staff members reading out some of the abusive, hurtful and homophobic comments made by people on Facebook after the organisation added a rainbow to its profile picture during Pride month last June. It is a solid message against discrimination.
South Wales FRS (SWFRS)
SWFRS also has a detailed EDI section and provide staff network groups for LGBTQ+, black, Asian and ethnic minorities, disability and religion. In addition, they have created a Staff Stories section that highlights the experiences of staff who act as role models within each minority group. Visible staff stories will encourage others to come forward about their own experiences and promote the feeling of being accepted for who you are.
Positive EDI action across the Fire and Rescue Service is not limited to those highlighted in this series. If you would like to shout about the good work taking place in your service, or about what is not being done, please contact me via FIRE Magazine. There is still more work to be done, and by championing as much as we can in these pages we can share good ideas and effective working practice throughout the whole service.