The FBU saying it will ‘hold fire services to account’ may not be enough to save them

A fire engine representing the FBU and fire services
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Content warning: The following article contains mention of rape.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has made what it calls a “dramatic intervention” into the ongoing scandal of discrimination in the fire service. It comes amid the trade union‘s annual conference – but also, crucially, after a damning report into the culture of the industry. However, the FBU proactively trying to tackle a culture of racism, homophobia, and misogyny is the tip of a much bigger iceberg. This is because these issues are entrenched across power structures in society.

Fire services: discrimination and abuse entrenched

As PinkNews reported, in March 2023 His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services released an investigation into England’s fire services and their ‘values and culture’. PinkNews wrote that:

25 per cent of fire and rescue services in England have received allegations of racial slurs and threats of rape…

After surveying 44 different services across the region, 11 found accusations of bigoted rhetoric.

These include the casual use of racial slurs, threats by two firefighters who told a female colleague they were going to “rape her”, and unjust dismissal of other serious allegations.

The report itself stated that:

Read on...

Our findings about two services (Gloucestershire Fire and Rescue Service and London Fire Brigade) were serious enough to contribute to their being placed in our ‘engage’ enhanced monitoring process.

Separately, an independent review found the London Fire Brigade to be “institutionally misogynistic and racist”. BBC News reported that:

a black firefighter had had a noose put by his locker, and a female had received a video of a colleague exposing himself.

So far, bosses in fire services like London’s have said they’re taking action to change things. Now, the FBU has stepped in.

The FBU is taking action

The union is currently holding its annual conference in Blackpool. During this, it has directly addressed the toxic culture that exists within fire services. The FBU said in a statement that:

Recent reports have shown that racism, homophobia and misogyny are “routinely ignored, or even instigated, by people at the very top” of the service

General secretary Matt Wrack said:

The public are right to be shocked at revelations in recent months.

The values of the Fire Service should be about respect, comradeship and having each other’s back. Firefighting is a well-respected, humanitarian profession. But the issues of discrimination and harassment must be addressed.

This crisis is the product of failings that go to the very top of the Fire Service. The government and Chief Fire Officers and have systematically failed to address the issue of equalities over decades and especially since 2010, when central government dropped its drive for equality and handed all control to local Chief Officers and local politicians.

Reports have shown how racism, homophobia and misogyny are routinely ignored, or even instigated, by people at the very top. Firefighters have been repeatedly failed, and some are scared to speak out.

So, the FBU is taking action “to tackle discrimination, harassment and bullying of firefighters”.

Holding fire services to account

Announcing the plan, Wrack said:

Putting the same leadership in charge of rescuing this situation would be entrusting the situation to the people who created the mess in the first place.

Today, we are announcing our intention to lead the drive for equality in the Fire and Rescue Service. As the democratic union representing the overwhelming majority of the workforce, we are the only body capable of running an effective campaign.

The Fire Brigades Union will launch its own set of standards on equalities, and will hold Fire Services to account against these.

We will also look to change behaviour directly in the Fire Service, and are launching a nationwide poster campaign in Fire Stations.

However, it’s debatable whether even the FBU’s plan can rescue fire services.

Is the FBU’s plan enough?

So-called ‘public service’ industries where individuals have power and or/responsibility over the rest of us are rife with toxic cultures of racism, homophobia, and misogyny. The police force is another example of this – with an independent review finding the Met institutionally racist, homophobic, and misogynistic. The NHS, and healthcare more broadly, have issues with misogyny, homophobia, and racism.

Right at the top, parliament itself is little better – with MPs accusing other MPs and staff of misogyny, racism, and overt transphobia. The point being, rampant discrimination is not a one-off, ‘bad apple’ issue. It is entrenched across power structures in every area of society, and always has been. This then seeps down into those structures – and ultimately, society itself.

We should welcome the FBU’s actions. However, when those at the top overtly discriminate at will, it’s hard to think that a cultural shift will come all that easily.

Featured image via Graham Mitchell – Wikimedia, resized to 770×403 under licence CC BY 2.0

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