Features Editor Lorna King reports on the key findings of the Independent Culture Review of London Fire Brigade and the immediate actions announced by the Brigade.
The Independent Culture Review of London Fire Brigade (LFB) published on Friday November 25, chaired by Nazir Afzal OBE, is a review that in Nazir’s words is, ‘rooted in deep respect for the work of the London Fire Brigade staff’. He highlights that there is no question that the Brigade’s response to emergencies and the protection of all Londoners is a high-quality service. The report is intended to focus on areas where, ‘improvement is needed and where toxic elements threaten to undermine the strength of the Brigade’.
Commissioned in response to an internal investigation into the death of firefighter Jaden Matthew Francois-Esprit, who sadly took his own life in August 2020, Nazir and his team collected evidence from more than 2,000 current and former members of LFB personnel over a period of ten months.
Equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) is recognised and has been improved on in recent years throughout the Brigade, but this culture review pays attention to the failings in the processes which directly impact on the treatment and career development of women, black, Asian and minority ethnic people, members of the LGBTQ+ community and neurodiverse staff.
Repeatedly mentioned in the review is the toxicity of watch culture. Nazir explains that research suggests firefighters demonstrate certain personality traits, in particular high levels of ‘Type A’ behaviour: extrovert, competitive, organised and possessing self-control, but at its worst, impatience, aggression and hostility. Nazir and his team found ‘too many examples where watch culture was rigidly enforced and anyone who didn’t fit in or was different was singled out for bullying or abuse’.
Also prevalent in the review is a lack of trust and a widening division between senior leaders, People Services, and all other staff. Morale is understandably low and 40 per cent of the responses to an online survey stated that they are frustrated in their job.
It is also made clear throughout that there are many watches and stations that have positive and productive working relationships based on trust and good communication and that there is a ‘postcode lottery’ as to whether staff end up in a positive or negative working environment.
The following is a selection of findings from the review, including a response of actions released by London Fire Brigade.
‘We interviewed many firefighters who acknowledged that bullying happens and can cause serious resentment, sickness, poor mental health and make people’s time at work very difficult’.
The review refers to the behaviour in some workplaces as a ‘pack mentality’, where ‘The watch tends to be seen as a place that’s almost outside the law…’ and ‘no action was frequently taken by managers on abuse and harassment. Instead it was treated as low level behaviour or considered to be “banter”’.
Many reported their workplace as a friendly and supportive environment, but they were aware of other watches/teams where they would not want to work. ‘As a measure of how patchy good practice is, one member of a particularly supportive watch was quick to note that he would not want to be on another watch on the same station, “as it was like walking into the lion’s den…”’
Other responses include: ‘There were fights and I nearly had my legs broken’, and ‘I’ve been urinated on, head-butted, had cold water poured over me. It was horrendous’.
These are shocking and extreme revelations that need addressing, but it is important to note the inclusion of shining examples of good practice included in the review. There is a case study on North Kensington Fire Station, which is widely recognised as a supportive station with a strong and diverse culture, and it has a long waiting list of firefighters and officers who want to work there.
LFB immediate action: ‘We’re taking a zero tolerance approach to discrimination, harassment and bullying. Anyone accused of this behaviour will be immediately suspended and dismissed if the accusation is upheld’.
Diversity and Inclusion
Evidence collected for the review did indicate that LFB is seeking to be more representative of the communities it serves and has been developing good practice for recruiting a more diverse workforce. ‘However,’ Nazir states, ‘attracting a more diverse workforce and providing training is only part of the issue. Support to develop emotional intelligence and encourage colleagues to engage in meaningful conversations without fear of offending is required when things do not work out; it is generally about an inability to communicate… Worryingly in too many instances we saw diversity framed as an “us versus them” narrative rather than a social and operational benefit’.
Multiple cases of bullying and targeting women and ethnic minorities in the workplace have been reported, and there is a clear view that LGBTQ+ and neurodivergent staff do not feel protected or supported at work. This behaviour and lack of communication has led to reports of low self-worth, suicidal thoughts and other mental health problems.
Extreme examples of abuse in the workplace include a black firefighter having a noose hung over his locker and a Muslim firefighter being mocked for his accent and having bacon put in his sandwiches. After repeated incidents, the latter example has since been diagnosed with PTSD and has confessed to having suicidal thoughts.
The report states that such examples, ‘demonstrate the impact of casual cruelty that is allowed to continue unchecked in some stations because managers consider racial abuse to be acceptable “banter”’.
Former London Fire Commissioner, Danny Cotton, has provided evidence for the review stating that: ‘Many people wanted me to fail, and several said it to my face’. She continued to state that her biggest battles were with ‘internal terrorists’.
The report continues with more extreme examples of misogyny: ‘We heard from women who had been verbally and physically assaulted, bullied, harassed, intimidated, abused online…’ The examples continue to include being groped, kicked, punched and having uniforms urinated on. ‘It is notable that LFB staff are significantly more impacted by stress, anxiety and depression than their national colleagues’.
LFB immediate action: ‘We’re introducing a new external complaints investigation service so that staff can feel safe to speak up and cases will be handled objectively and confidentially’.
“Too many examples where watch culture was rigidly enforced and anyone who didn’t fit in or was different was singled out for bullying or abuse”
Mental Health and Wellbeing
There are six known LFB staff who committed suicide between 2016 and 2021 and another suspected (but not confirmed) suicide in January 2022. After the tragic death of Jaden in 2020, an internal investigation found inadequacies in several LFB systems and made 24 recommendations to address them.
In February 2021, the coroner issued a Preventing Deaths Report, and this combined with the recommendations from the internal investigation produces an action plan of 32 recommendations, 23 of which are now complete, including this external review of culture in all teams and all levels.
The responses from LFB staff on mental health featured in the review are varied, as these examples illustrate:
‘When I was diagnosed with having a mental health issue, my line manager made a point of involving the watch telling me it was all in my head and making sure I was not allowed to be operational, this made the situation worse and meant more time required with specialists’.
‘…around six years ago, I sustained serious work-based bullying, in which I sought counselling and wellbeing support. I was made to feel wanted and someone again, and the help was truly welcome’.
One of the best examples of good practice for mental health support illustrated in the review is the Men’s Walk and Talk initiative founded by Dean Corney of Beckenham White Watch (featured in FIRE’s September 2022 issue). This initiative is enabling a huge amount of trust among emergency services staff and giving people the space and confidence to talk openly.
LFB immediate action: ‘We’re making it much easier and quicker for staff to access help and support. Our people provide an essential emergency response service and are frequently exposed to traumatic incidents, which requires improved support’.
In responses to surveys and interviews: ‘People Services were criticised for being ineffective, inefficient, slow and people were not always sure who does what... There was also fierce criticism that the department enabled a non-transparent recruitment process that was unfair and rooted in cronyism’.
The department is currently undergoing major reconstruction following previous investigations into the Grenfell Tower tragedy and the HMICFRS 2019 inspections. People Services has openly admitted that the old operating model had limitations and was not in keeping with HR best practice. Nazir states that: ‘The restructuring is a step in the right direction, although there is still a great [deal of] work to be done for it to become a strategic partner in the organisation’.
Concerns from respondents to surveys and interviews give a general feeling that People Services is currently an ineffective service, for example: ‘I raised concerns with HR and line manager regarding the stress it was causing me being placed on courses on off duty days. I was ignored and threatened with discipline’.
There is detailed information included in the report about the developments to People Services that are being designed, updated and implemented for the future benefit of all LFB personnel.
LFB immediate action: ‘We’re reviewing all our people-related processes to eliminate discrimination, including involving independent people to make immediate improvements where practical’.
The overall feeling is that there is a huge divide between senior management and lower ranks. There is also confusion about the methods of management, ultimately forming a widening trust gap which is illustrated in various comments in the review, such as this one: ‘Watch based staff are receptive. It’s when you start going above station officer, then it seems they’re only in it for tick-boxes and looking after each other’.
Nazir suggests that leadership might be inconsistent because there are no measurements for the culture of the organisation, or for listening or being empathetic to others. He states: ‘There were multiple complaints about leaders and HR lacking people skills, which are not recognised in any training’.
There are additional concerns over LFB’s ability to identify talent and support the most able personnel, but it is also stated that: ‘There were plenty of good leadership examples we saw – those who mentored and championed staff, and went out of their way to build inclusive environments’.
LFB immediate action: ‘We’re making a permanent shift in our approach to leadership. It is the responsibility of our leaders to set and uphold high standards, so those leaders who do not value transparency, accountability and fairness will no longer have a place in the Brigade. We also expect our leaders to own their past mistakes’.
“Unless a toxic culture that allows bullying and abuse to be normalised is tackled then I fear that, like Jaden, other firefighters will tragically take their lives”
One thousand and seventy-four LFB personnel were involved in the response to tragedy at the Grenfell Tower. This undoubtedly has had an impact on the staff culture in terms of mental health and early retirement from the service because of trauma, anxiety and depression. The review reflects on how Grenfell has impacted on culture in the following ways:
There is a need for increased trauma specialism and mental health awareness.
Grenfell has forced LFB to engage more with communities to rebuild trust.
The damage to trust will take time to fully repair.
Communication and Engagement
‘A clear finding from our review was that staff do not feel that they have a voice to speak up. There is low psychological safety (which will be addressed through the new leadership development programme) and there is fear of repercussions’.
The review has found that some areas of the communications staff team are overworked and struggling with resources: ‘In particular there was a significant imbalance between external and internal communications’.
Since Grenfell, the communications strategy has developed to include more guidance on working with communities and representing London and this new community engagement work has created more jobs. The work completed over the last year in communities was, ‘largely welcomed by firefighters, though many felt they were scratching the surface and much more community engagement was needed… Feedback from many BAME firefighters suggested that there is a wealth of ideas and suggestions as to how the Brigade could better engage with diverse communities’.
In his conclusion of the review, Nazir states that the LFB is institutionally misogynist and racist: ‘Unless a toxic culture that allows bullying and abuse to be normalised is tackled then I fear that, like Jaden, other firefighters will tragically take their lives’.
He wants this review to become, ‘a turning point, not just a talking point … Everyone who works for the emergency services should be afforded dignity at work. That is the very least they are owed’.
There are 23 detailed recommendations and 29 intended outcomes in the report giving upmost importance to tackling bullying and abuse and improving services that allow people to speak freely and access support.
London Fire Commissioner Andy Roe said on the day the report was published: “Today is a very sobering day. There is no place for discrimination, harassment and bullying in the Brigade and from today it will be completely clear to all staff what behaviour isn’t acceptable and what the consequences will be.
“I am deeply sorry for the harm that has been caused. I will be fully accountable for improving our culture and I fully accept all of the 23 recommendations.”
LFB has released the following statement:
‘From today the Brigade is making immediate changes to provide increased protection for its staff. Anyone accused of discrimination, harassment and bullying will be suspended following a risk assessment, pending immediate investigation and dismissed if the accusation is upheld.
‘The report highlighted a lack of confidence in the Brigade’s current complaints procedure and showed that staff didn’t feel safe speaking up. Following the outcome of the review, the Brigade is introducing an External Complaints Service while internal processes are improved. Staff will be able to use the service to report poor behaviour rather than having to report it internally.
‘The Commissioner has introduced immediate changes to the Brigade’s approach to leadership. In the report, the Brigade’s leadership was described as disconnected and divided in their commitment to change and that they do not always display the behaviours asked of the staff. He has made it clear that leaders who do not value transparency, accountability and fairness will not have a place in the Brigade. All leaders will be undertaking inclusivity training, which has already begun, and from next month senior leaders will be visiting every watch and team to talk to staff about the review’.
To access the report in full via LFB’s website visit: https://www.london-fire.gov.uk/about-us/independent-culture-review/