Allegations of bullying, harassment and discrimination have been reported in every fire and rescue service in England, a report has found.
Examples included two male firefighters joking with a female colleague that they were “going to rape her,” and the three of them acting out the rape together. On another occasion a senior officer referred to a black colleague using the n-word.
Inspectors found examples of racist, homophobic and misogynistic behaviour in a quarter of services in England, with the behaviour often excused as “banter.”
The sector is described as a “boys club,” and people said they felt uncomfortable about reporting bad behaviour for fear of reprisals. The fire inspectorate warned that recent headlines about misconduct may be just the tip of the iceberg.
Roy Wilsher, of His Majesty’s Inspector of Fire and Rescue Services, said on misconduct cases over the past 12 months: “More than half of those concerned inappropriate behaviour, such as bullying and harassment, associated with a protected characteristic. This is shocking enough but I am not confident that this is even the whole picture.”
“Our findings shine a light on deeply troubling bullying and harassment in fire and rescue services across the country – and I fear this could be just the tip of the iceberg.
“I can’t guarantee there’s no predators or racists, homophobes or sexists within the Fire Rescue Service. But what I can guarantee that if our recommendations are implemented, things will improve,” he told Sky News.
The report calls for background checks on all firefighters and staff, and new misconduct standards to be introduced. This is to include a national barred list. The sector needs to “get a grip” on how it handles misconduct, the inspector said, adding it “cannot wait another day before it acts.”
‘I did get pressured into sleeping with a colleague’
Sky News spoke to a female firefighter who said she was pressured into sex by a male colleague.
“I haven’t discussed it before, but there was a time after an evening out that I did get pressured into sleeping with a colleague when I didn’t want to. If I was sober I would never have consented to it,” she told Sky News.
“After that, my mental health was really bad. I regretted it so much that I let myself get that drunk – I didn’t expect to get upset… last year I actually made an attempt to take my own life because of how he made me feel.”
The firefighter said she was repeatedly sent explicit photographs from male colleagues.
“I try and avoid people that have sent me pictures like that now. And I try and act as normal as possible… but it’s always at the back of my mind.”
One of the images shows a male firefighter sitting on a toilet showing his private parts. He is wearing a navy blue t-shirt that appears to be his uniform.
Sky News has seen text message exchanges between female colleagues which paint a disturbing picture of their experiences.
One reads: “A lot of sexual favours asked for. A female colleague was pinned in the corner by more than one firefighter and demanded sexual favours. Another was sexually assaulted by a colleague as he walked past. Then he took photos of her changing.
The Home Office called the findings in the report “deeply concerning” and promised to address bad culture across the sector.