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New report calls for the introduction of misconduct standards in the UK fire service


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A new report released by His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) has called for comprehensive background checks on all firefighters and staff, along with new misconduct standards including the introduction of a national barred list and mechanisms for raising concerns.

The report, which focused on fire and rescue services in England, found examples of racist, homophobic and misogynistic behaviour in 25% of services, often excused as banter. The HMICFRS described the sector as a “boys’ club”, with some services experiencing significantly more bullying than others.

It highlighted instances of bullying and harassment, including a senior officer using the “n-word” when referring to a Black colleague, two male firefighters joking about raping a female firefighter and engaging in a simulation of the rape, and homophobic abuse found written on a firefighter’s locker.

The report also revealed that people were often afraid to report bad behaviour for fear of reprisals. One person said their “card would be marked” if they raised concerns, while another described it as “career suicide.”

The HMICFRS called for all fire and rescue services to implement the recommendations outlined in the report, which include improved oversight, accountability and transparency. It also called for the establishment of an independent body to oversee the implementation of the report’s recommendations.

‘Tip of the iceberg’

His Majesty’s Inspector of Fire & Rescue Services Roy Wilsher said the findings shine a light on deeply troubling bullying and harassment in fire and rescue services across the country – but that it could just be ‘the tip of the iceberg’.

“Firefighters can be called upon to do an incredibly difficult job. They should be able to trust each other implicitly, just as the public need to be able to trust them. Unfortunately, our findings show this is not always the case,” said Wilsher. “Instead, we found trust and respect is too often replaced with derogatory, bullying behaviour, often excused as banter.”

Services reported misconduct cases over the past 12 months with more than half concerning inappropriate behaviour, such as bullying and harassment, associated with a protected characteristic.

Wilsher said the sector needs to ‘get a grip’ on how it handles misconduct matters: “Staff should feel able to report allegations without fear of reprisals, and any fire and rescue staff found to have committed gross misconduct should be placed on a national barred list to protect other services and the public.

“Despite the fact fire and rescue staff often have contact with the most vulnerable members of society, there is no legal obligation for services to run background checks and we found an inconsistent approach to this across the country. We’re calling for appropriate background checks on existing and new staff as a bare minimum.”

He added that the majority of fire and rescue staff act with integrity and we are in no doubt of their dedication to the public, but that behaviour uncovered makes it clear the sector cannot wait another day before it acts: “We have made 35 recommendations and would urge chief fire officers, the government and national fire bodies to implement them as a matter of urgency.”

‘No time to wait’

The HMICFRS report comes just days after the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) event on culture and inclusion which brought together representatives from all UK Fire and Rescue services.

Attendees to the event were unanimous in their commitment to to improve culture and inclusion across fire and rescue services, with the publication of a clear and renewed national action plan within a month.

Commenting on the new report, Mark Hardingham, Chair of the NFCC, said: “This report makes for difficult reading; I am clear that now is the time to act together to deliver transformation and culture change across the fire and rescue service. We need to move forward with pace; there is no time to wait. To read about the allegations of bullying, harassment and discrimination paints a stark and damning picture of the cultural issues fire and rescue services face.

“I fully support the report’s recommendations and I am committed to working with fire and rescue services, government, HMICFRS and wider partners to ensure we see tangible improvements – and provide challenge and support where we do not. Strong action must be taken to ensure everyone feels safe and supported, staff are treated fairly and have the confidence to challenge poor behaviour.”

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