The firefighters union has said it is “sceptical” of senior leaders in the London fire brigade driving change after a damning independent report exposed misogyny, racism and bullying in the organisation.
The report, published on Friday, found that female firefighters had been groped, beaten and had their helmets filled with urine, while fighters of colour were subjected to racist abuse – including a black firefighter having a noose put over his locker and a Muslim colleague having bacon and sausages stuffed in his pockets.
Nazir Afzal, the former chief prosecutor who conducted the independent culture review, has labelled London fire brigade (LFB) “institutionally misogynist and racist”.
Gareth Cook, the Fire Brigades Union regional organiser for London, said the union had raised concerns “over many years” and said they feared senior leaders would not implement changes “with regards to their own behaviours”.
“[We] have raised concerns about many of the issues contained within this report historically and as a consequence we remain sceptical about the changes senior leaders will implement with regards to their own behaviours,” he said.
In a statement, Cook said there were elements of the report “which confirm concerns raised by the Fire Brigades Union over many years” as well as elements “which will cause considerable concern and alarm”. The review’s finding that staff feared repercussions if they spoke out was “entirely unacceptable and must change”.
Cook said the FBUs rules required all members to treat others with “dignity and respect and to challenge offensive behaviour of any kind”, adding the union had campaigned against all discrimination.
One female firefighter told the report that some male firefighters who visited women’s homes for safety visits go through drawers looking for underwear and sex toys. Another said a “banter” culture allowed female firefighters to become the target of jokes.
In a statement the LFB said it would take immediate steps including piloting bodycams, a zero-tolerance approach to discrimination, harassment and bullying, an external complaints service and a new brigade-wide leadership structure.
Cook also highlighted the finding that morale and engagement in the LFB is low, with 40% of the workforce frustrated in their job as a result of staff shortages, low pay, poor workforce planning, no leave availability, poor work-life balance and low recognition.
“The review also finds there is a need for increased trauma specialism and mental health awareness. For us these findings of poor morale and a need for better mental health structures are highly linked,” he said.
The report, titled the Independent Cultural Review of London Fire Brigade and based on the experiences of more than 2,000 members of staff, was commissioned after the death of Jaden Francois-Esprit, a trainee at Wembley fire station who killed himself aged 21 in August 2020.
Harriet Wistrich, the director of the Centre for Women’s Justice, which has launched super complaints about misconduct in the police including into police perpetrated domestic abuse (PPDA), said it was clear that all major institutions, particularly those dominated by men, were likely to contain unwelcome misconduct.
“Our work reflects the findings of this report, that it is very difficult for people who want to expose misconduct to do so,” she said. “I don’t think there is a quick fix, but large institutions like the police and the fire service have to send out a very strong message that this behaviour won’t be tolerated, they have to have whistleblowing procedures that actually work and don’t victimise victims and there has to be real consequences for perpetrators.”