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Thursday, September 16, 1999 Published at 16:16 GMT 17:16 UK


Fire service 'sexist, racist and homophobic'

Quality of service's life-saving work not reflected in internal culture

The Fire Service has been branded institutionally sexist, racist and homophobic in a scathing report revealing prejudice throughout the service in England and Wales.

The overwhelmingly white, male staff believed women were not up to doing "a man's job", black firefighters faced "routine name-calling" and homosexuality was a taboo subject, according to the Fire Service Inspectorate.

Fire chiefs have been given 18 months to implement 23 recommendations contained in the report.

[ image: Black firefighters faced
Black firefighters faced "routine name-calling"
Inspectors uncovered numerous instances of sexual harassment, including flashing and assault.

They also found "real" racial tension although there was relatively little overt racism.

Home Office minister Mike O'Brien said the report showed there was a stark contrast between the high standards of the service's life-saving work and its internal culture.

Of the 33,579 full time and 14,483 part time staff employed by the service, just 513 were from black and ethnic minorities and just 436 were women, according to figures for March.

Blame for the service's "macho and laddish" culture was put on the "watch" or shift system, where officers work for years with the same small group and develop a family-like closeness.

[ image:  ]
Mr O'Brien said: "It is time that the Fire Service began to understand that society is changing, and it is time it began changing too."

There were reports of sexual harassment in every one of the 10 forces inspected for the report: Avon, Bedfordshire and Luton, Greater Manchester, Hereford and Worcester, Leicestershire and Rutland, London, South Wales, Tyne and Wear, West Midlands and West Sussex.

'Great disappointment'

The Fire Brigades Union said it was delighted that the service was at last being called to account.

[ image: Fighting fire with fire: Home Office's blistering report]
Fighting fire with fire: Home Office's blistering report
National officer Andy Gilchrist said: "There can no longer be any excuses for not tackling the problem.

"If there is anyone left in the Fire Service who does not want to turn this report into action, they should get out of the way now.

"We are delighted that [Home Secretary] Jack Straw has grasped the nettle which the service has for too long ignored."

About 150 people have contacted the service's support group for gay and lesbian officers, but no more than a dozen or so have dared to come out to their colleagues, said Mr Gilchrist.

Graham Meldrum, chief inspector of the Fire Service, admitted that the report would be seen as a "great disappointment" to the service, but that it should also be looked upon as a challenge to change.

Fear of change

The report criticised both the management and culture of the service.

Its hierarchical structure and the strong emphasis put on "fitting in" with the team meant that even when procedures were in place for people to report harassment, they were seldom used.

Many of the fire-fighters interviewed believed that altering the white, male dominated nature of the organisation would inevitably lead to dropping standards.

Inspectors said staff were more ready to admit black and ethnic minorities to the service than women.

"The overwhelming collective view of the staff was strong opposition to women being employed in the operational fire service," said the report.

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