The mother of a firefighter whose death triggered a review into the culture at the London fire brigade, has welcomed the findings of a damning report.
However, Linda Francois, whose son Jaden Francois-Esprit killed himself in August 2020, said that much remained to be done and making real changes in the workplace for people like her son was what really mattered.
The independent culture review of LFB, led by Nazir Afzal, a former chief crown prosecutor, found “dangerous levels of ingrained prejudice against women”, while colleagues from minority backgrounds were “frequently the target of racist abuse”.
The London fire commissioner, Andy Roe, said there would be a zero-tolerance approach to bullying and harassment and discrimination, and accepted the review’s 21 recommendations, including the introduction of body-worn video cameras.
Speaking exclusively to the Guardian, Francois said: “When Jaden completed his firefighter training he was proud to be wearing his uniform, but within a short time the London fire brigade had “completely destroyed him”.
Francois, 55, an NHS worker, said her son became increasingly distressed about racism and bullying at Wembley fire station, where he was based.
While she said that the commissioner had always been supportive and had told her repeatedly that the fire service must be held accountable for what had happened to her son, Francois said she had encountered some hostility from firefighters, especially around the time of her son’s inquest, with denials that racism or bullying existed in LFB posted on social media.
“What’s good is that people have felt able to speak up for this review,” she said. “They felt they were in a safe place to speak their truth and share the trauma they experienced for many years.”
She explained that group of firefighters formed what they described as a “guard of honour” after Jaden’s death to speak up about the issues he had experienced, including racism and bullying.
“They put together a mass of evidence. They contacted me … to offer support. The people who did speak out for Jaden initially saw no action but now this report has come out they feel vindicated.”
She hopes that the recommendations the LFB have accepted in the independent review will bring about significant change.
“LFB continually failed to address cultural issues year after year. I do question how that culture is going to change. How are they going to make a young, black, neuro-divergent person like Jaden, who was very inexperienced, feel confident and comfortable at work. What will be put in place?
“Jaden was on the verge of leaving LFB when he took his life. How many others have also left because of similar experiences.”
Francois said that her son had raised concerns about what he believed to be bullying, harassment and racism at Wembley fire station.
He had no mental health problems when he entered the fire service, according to his family. But towards the end of his life, the firefighter’s mental health deteriorated sharply. He made 16 transfer requests to work at other stations, but these requests were not accepted and he remained at Wembley where he was increasingly unhappy.
Francois said he raised various concerns about his treatment including being teased for eating traditional Caribbean food, given the nickname “lazy boy” and being humiliated by reprimands given over the station PA.
He was also concerned about not getting adequate support for his dyslexia, an initial decision not to assign him a mentor, and not being given a locker for months.
Francois has questioned why managers failed to keep her son safe at work despite family members repeatedly alerting managers at the fire station to their concerns for him.
“Nothing will ever bring Jaden back. He should still be here with us,” she said. “When Jaden finished his training he was so proud to be wearing that uniform. He was living his best life. But in a very short space of time they totally destroyed him. We will never, ever get over that.
“While this report is a good start there’s a lot more work to be done. They have said this report is a legacy for Jaden. A true legacy will be to make sure that there are lasting changes in the workplace.
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org.