'Watershed moment' as Inspectorate finds harassment at every fire service in England

The government is 'highly concerned' after inspectors find bullying and harassment at every fire service in England following ITV News UK Editor Paul Brand's investigation.

The Fire Inspectorate has discovered bullying and harassment is taking place within every fire service in England.

Declaring a "watershed moment," His Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) firefighters were suffering misogyny, racism and homophobia at a quarter of the 44 services.

Their findings follow a four-month investigation by ITV News, which uncovered widespread claims of sexual harassment and abuse of women at the hands of firefighters.

Fire Inspector Roy Wilsher said ITV News' reporting had raised "important issues", which his subsequent review has found are endemic. 

He told me: "Personally I was shocked and I know my team were shocked by some of these behaviours. I thought and I hoped that some of this behaviour was from the dim and distance past, but there are far too many instances of this behaviour still there.

"I do believe that this is a watershed moment. It is time for this behaviour to stop."

Among HMICFRS's findings, inspectors found:

  • A black firefighter had been called the 'n' word

  • Two male firefighters had joked about and simulated rape on a female colleague

  • Homophobia was daubed across a firefighter's locker

The Inspectorate says an "old boys club" is perceived to operate in the fire service, with many perpetrators of bullying and harassment allowed to retire or resign in order to avoid sanction.

The findings echo concerns raised with ITV News by multiple victims.

At Dorset and Wiltshire Fire and Rescue Service, we found claims that female colleagues had been inundated with explicit photographs of male firefighters. 

Several sources also claimed that firefighters had photographed - and later joked about - the bodies of women who'd died in car crashes. The police are currently investigating.

Separately, ITV News found that at Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service a fire officer was promoted to management despite being under a live police investigation for rape.

Among its 35 recommendations, HMICFRS says there should be background checks on every single firefighter. Currently, some fire services do carry out checks, but this is not compulsory or standardised across the country.

The Inspectorate also says firefighters sacked from one service for misconduct should be barred from joining another.

And they say complaints processes should be improved because staff currently perceive speaking out to be "career suicide".

However, concerns have been raised about HMICFRS's own inspections regime.

The Inspectorate rated both Dorset and Wiltshire Fire Service and Tyne and Wear Fire Service as good, despite the complaints we uncovered. 

Speaking to ITV News anonymously about the inspection process, one whistleblowing firefighter whose service was rated 'good' claimed the inspection had been rigged.

"I think the HMICFRS are being misled," they said.

"I think people are being hand picked and brainwashed into what to say. There has been times where things have been put into people's mouths before they've met the HMICFRS."Responding to the concerns, Mr Wilsher said: "When we inspect services we inspect at a moment in time. If other allegations come up later we take those into account and we will be looking at this even harder in future."

He added: "Our report clearly has rooted out the issue. We've been reporting on this since 2018. And we will be looking even closer at culture, values, diversity and fairness in future."

Fire Inspector Roy Wilsher told ITV News he'd like to say the public are safe with every firefighter - 'but couldn't guarantee that at this moment'

However, when asked, he could not guarantee that the public was safe with every firefighter.

"I think I can guarantee they're safe in the hands of the vast majority of firefighters in this service. I'd like to say 100% but I can't sit here and guarantee that at this moment."

The Fire Brigades Union said: "Just as much as fire contaminants and unsafe working practices, this kind of behaviour is a matter of health and safety in the workplace."

The group added: "It is clear, both from our experience and from the contents of this report, that the failure to address discrimination and harassment in the service goes right to the top.

"Some Fire Service leaders are part of the problem, and have systematically failed to address discrimination, harassment and bullying in the service.

“This report corroborates those experiences."

Responding to HMICFRS' report, the Home Office said: “These findings are deeply concerning and we have been clear in our recent proposals that fire reform is urgently needed. 

"We want to see fire and rescue services where everyone is welcome, treated with respect and able to thrive. We will continue to work closely with our partners, including fire and rescue services and the Inspectorate and the National Fire Chiefs Council, to make sure these deeply concerning issues about culture in the sector are addressed.”

If you have information about this story or others on the issue please contact us at investigations@itv.com

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know.