Incidents of misogyny, racism and bullying have been exposed by an independent report on the culture at the UK’s largest firefighting and rescue organisation.
Female firefighters have been groped, beaten and had their helmets filled with urine, a review of the London fire brigade has found.
Some male firefighters who visited women’s homes for safety visits go through drawers looking for underwear and sex toys, a female firefighter told the report.
In one incident logged in the report, a black firefighter had a noose put over his locker and in another, a Muslim colleague had bacon and sausages stuffed in his pockets and a terrorist hotline sign posted on his locker.
Nazir Afzal, the former chief prosecutor who conducted the review, has labelled the brigade “institutionally misogynist and racist”.
In some watches there appeared to be a deep resistance to women being firefighters, and senior figures explained that the approach of male colleagues was to “treat you badly and hope to get rid of you”.
Afzal said he hoped the review would be a “turning point” so that all firefighters could enjoy dignity at work and not have to run a gauntlet of abuse from colleagues.
“The actions of some firefighters are bringing a great institution into disrepute and these people do not belong in modern public services. When I sit before women explaining that they fear for their lives when they go to dangerous incidents because they have to depend on their colleagues, and it’s impossible to do this when the same colleagues treat them like dirt, then I despair,” he said.
One female firefighter told the review that there is a “banter” culture that allows female firefighters to become the target of jokes.
“There will be some people who don’t understand the nature of bullying in this job.
“Your life depends on your colleagues. You have to rely on them to get out safely and how can you do that when you know they think so little of you and treat you like dirt?” she said.
She said she advises female friends not to allow male firefighters in their houses for fire safety checks.
“I know what they do. They go through women’s drawers looking for underwear and sex toys. They will spend hours bragging about the dildo they found and refer to the women as sluts,” she said.
The review says: “On countless occasions, stories of racial slurs being casually used were related to us by people of colour. At its worst, particularly in relation to Muslim firefighters, this would manifest itself in constant mockery, baiting and bullying. We heard from one firefighter who had been diagnosed with PTSD as a result.”
More than 4,500 of the London fire brigade’s 5,000 staff are firefighters, but only 425 are women and slightly more than 500 are from ethnic minorities.
Afzal’s review, completed with a team of six experts, took place over the past 12 months, during which they visited stations, gathered submissions and interviewed staff at all levels. The report, titled the Independent Cultural Review of London Fire Brigade, is based on the experiences of more than 2,000 members of staff.
The report was commissioned after the death of Jaden Francois-Esprit, a trainee at Wembley fire station who took his own life aged 21 in August 2020.
An inquest last year heard that Francois-Esprit believed he was being bullied at work because of his ethnicity. He was teased about the Caribbean food he brought in for lunch. He had made 16 requests to be transferred to another station.
Afzal said: “Jaden’s position was not unique. We have spoken to others that are equally isolated and harbouring suicidal thoughts. It’s wholly unacceptable that public servants are being stripped of their dignity and this review must be the starting point to end this toxic culture and start building a more supportive environment that values all staff. That would be a fitting legacy for Jaden.”
The review contains 21 recommendations, including the introduction of body-worn video by firefighters, a historic review of complaints about racism, misogyny and bullying over the past five years, and secure facilities for all women in stations.
The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, said the review should be a “watershed moment” for the London fire brigade and said he supported the fire commissioner, Andy Roe, in setting it up.
“The fire commissioner knows he has my full support in making the significant and necessary changes to root out all those found to be responsible for sexism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, bullying or harassment – and to support members of staff to speak out.
“Some of that work has already started with a new independent team investigating complaints and a pledge to scrutinise firefighter interactions with the public through body-worn video. But more must be done and at pace,” he said.
A statement from 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.
Roe said: “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. 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,” he said.
“This report highlights many issues within the brigade, and it also highlights examples of completely unacceptable behaviour from some of our staff when dealing with the public.
“These staff jeopardise not just the trust placed in us, but the safety of those who now might be dissuaded from requesting our help.”