Head of London fire brigade says it must face up to racism and misogyny

Andy Roe says he fears workplace culture could stop his daughter feeling welcome at some stations

A culture of casual racism and misogyny remains so prevalent within pockets of the London fire brigade that the head of the service said he feared his mixed-race daughter might not be treated with “dignity and respect” at some fire stations.

This workplace culture may explain the poor progression of women and staff from BAME backgrounds to senior positions within the service, according to Andy Roe, the London fire brigade commissioner, who this week launched a review, acknowledging that the brigade has unresolved problems on race and gender.

The review comes a month after an inquest into the death of Jaden Francois-Esprit, a trainee firefighter at Wembley fire station, who killed himself last August, three weeks after his 21st birthday. His family were concerned he had been bullied because of his race.

A fellow trainee, Gabriel Ivarsson, told King’s Cross coroner’s court in a statement: “He felt he was being teased about his food and about his culture and background.” The coroner said there was insufficient evidence to link race or bullying to the suicide, highlighting instead the need for greater sensitivity towards employees’ mental health.

But Roe, who took over in January 2020 after his predecessor faced criticisms over the handling of the Grenfell fire, said he remained determined to improve the brigade’s record on race. “Jaden’s death poses very tough questions for us as an organisation about how we treat young people, how we view difference, how we genuinely make everyone feel welcome,” he said. “I don’t need the inquest to show me that race may be an issue – I’ve only got to look at our own data.”

London fire brigade data shows that employees from African, Caribbean and Asian backgrounds or with English as a second language are less likely to be promoted, more likely to be subject to formal and informal discipline, and more likely to be made to retake training modules.

Roe paid tribute to the kindness and bravery of his colleagues who risked their lives regularly and “have reached in to rescue people regardless of background”.

But he added: “In my experience the same people might then come back to the fire station and express themselves casually in racist terms, in misogynist terms, use crude language around faith and sexuality. We are awash with really great people who are really kind and will be there for anyone at their point of crisis, but we still have elements of our culture that we need to transparently face up to and unpick.”

His own mixed-heritage family had made him determined to improve the brigade’s record, he said. “The benchmark for me is I’ve got a young mixed-heritage daughter. Can I say with confidence that she will be treated with dignity and respect in every single part of the London fire brigade? No I can’t.”

He estimated that about 80% of the fire brigade would pose no problems for her, but there would be places that might make her uneasy.

“I just want proper change. I want my daughter to walk confidently on to a fire station if she chooses to join in six or seven years’ time, and to feel welcomed and comfortable there.”

Roe would not speculate on whether the LFB was institutionally racist, stressing that he did not want to preempt the findings of the review.

“It’s not just about race. If I look at the statistics, it’s very clear that women are underrepresented at every single level of our organisation, and our own workforce survey tells us that two-thirds of people who see themselves as part of the London LGBT+ community don’t feel confident to express themselves at work in the context of their sexuality. The review is there to consider all those areas, including race, to tell us what the issues are.”

Recruitment of trainees from BAME backgrounds increased from 6.9% in 2019-20 to 31.5% in 2020-21, while the proportion of female trainee firefighters increased from 10.2% to 23.5% in the same period. The proportion of BAME firefighters in the London fire brigade stands at 15%, and the proportion of female firefighters is 10%. In 2019 the London fire brigade was ranked as one of the worst in the country by Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services.

“We were doing lots of lots of things before Jaden took his life, but we’re at the beginning of a journey rather than an end,” Roe said.

The family of Francois-Esprit said in a statement through their lawyer that they welcomed the review but called on the brigade to put safeguards in place immediately to protect other vulnerable trainees.


Amelia Gentleman

The GuardianTramp

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