Damning workplace culture report reveals severe shortcomings at London Fire Brigade

An independent culture review has revealed a plethora of failings regarding the internal culture and well-being of staff at the London Fire Brigade (LFB), labelling it as “institutionally misogynist and racist”.

The commissioned review – published on 25 November 2022 – was carried out by the former Chief Crown Prosecutor for north-west England, Nazir Afzal OBE.

The report forms the outcome of an independent investigation that was requested by London Fire Commissioner, Andy Roe, after a trainee firefighter took his own life in August 2020. It was suggested by Jaden Matthew Francois-Esprit's family that the 21-year-old had been heavily bullied due to his ethnicity, though it was later found that Jaden had mental health issues that had gone undetected.

During the inquest, the coroner Mary Hassell stated: “In my opinion, there is a risk that future deaths will occur unless action is taken.” Data from Afzal’s report show that six staff members of LFB had taken their own lives in the last five years. In addition, there were a number of “harrowing examples” of attempted suicides.

Uncovering a culture of racism, bullying, and misogyny

Over the course of 10 months, Afzal and his team conducted over 250 interviews with current and previous members of staff. Additionally, an online survey was completed by more than 1,600 employees, while over 100 written submissions were given through a secure and private email.

In his report, Afzal added: “In one case of horrendous racial abuse, we spoke to a black firefighter who had a noose put above his locker. We also spoke to a Muslim who was constantly bullied about his religion and had bacon and sausages put in his coat pockets and a terrorist hotline sign posted on his locker.

“On countless occasions, stories of racial slurs being casually used were related to us by people of colour. At its worse, particularly in relation to some Muslim firefighters, this would manifest itself in constant mockery, baiting, and bullying. We heard from one firefighter who had been diagnosed with PTSD as a result.”

There were also numerous accounts of women being subject to abuse from colleagues on a day-to-day basis. Some women admitted to being groped during training exercises and experiencing a “daily gauntlet of sexist abuse… frequently euphemised as ‘banter’.

Many women reiterated their concerns over whether they could ultimately trust their colleagues to protect them while on duty in dangerous scenarios, with some having photos taken of them without their consent and others being sexually taunted. One woman, it was found, “after making complaints about this, received video calls from a man exposing his genitalia”.

The conclusion of the report also stipulated: “We also found that LGBTQ+ staff and people who are neurologically diverse are treated unfavourably compared to others.

In a letter to Roe, Afzal stated: “Many of the people who came to us were reduced to tears and are clearly carrying a great burden. They do not feel they are being listened to, complaints go nowhere, and they have no recourse to justice or protection from bullies.

Their stories, as difficult as they are to read, ought to be the catalyst for change. I hope you will ensure this is a watershed moment for the Brigade, which will see it become not only a modern fire and rescue service that’s at the heart of a great world city, but also the inclusive and representative public service that I know you want it to be.

Impact of Grenfell on LFB staff and call to action

Another key revelation of the report identified the “seismic impact” that the Grenfell Tower fire had on LFB staff, of which some 1,074 members were involved – making up 19% of the workforce. The report stated:

Staff repeatedly told us that it has taken its toll on their mental health and, while LFB informed us that they did not have complete data for the number of people that had left the Brigade because of the impact of the Grenfell Fire, they did acknowledge there had been a number of ill-health retirements as a result.

Following the publication of the report, many organisations and industry professionals have spoken out about the necessity of immediate reform. In response to Afzal’s findings, Roe wrote:

I am deeply sorry for the harm that has been caused. I completely accept the 23 recommendations in your report, and I write to you to set out our plans and the action we intend to take. I will be fully accountable for improving our culture.”

There is no place for discrimination, harassment, and bullying in the Brigade and from today it will be completely clear what behaviour isn’t acceptable and what the consequences will be.

The report confirms that the disadvantage and discrimination that affects our staff does not translate into our operations and does not impact on the way we prevent and respond to incidents. This confirms with what we know about firefighters responding professionally and equally to all types of incidents. However, I take little comfort from this, given the extremity of our own staff’s experiences.

In a statement, Gareth Cook of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) said that the union had “raised concerns about many of the issues contained within this report historically” and, as a result, “remain sceptical about the changes senior leaders will implement with regard to their own behaviours”.

Our rules and policies require every FBU member to treat others with dignity and respect and to challenge offensive behaviour of any kind. The union is committed to equality. We campaign against all discrimination by gender, race or ethnicity, sexuality, age, disability, and religion or belief. We have a long record of campaigning on such issues,” Cook said.

You can read the full report here.