Report on Equality in the U.K. Fire Service

The Fire Service Inspectorate released a comprehensive report in September of 1999 summarizing the status of equal opportunity issues in the British fire service. The Inspectorate is a government agency responsible for assessing how fire brigades in England and Wales are "discharging their functions... and meeting their responsibilities" under the law. Its report, entitled "Equality and Fairness in the Fire Service: Founding a Cultural Equality," was the result of months of study and discussion via questionnaires, interviews, and visits by inspection teams to ten fire brigades.

This inspection, the first of several to be conducted nationwide on a series of issues critical to the fire service, was charged with "examining the extent to which all elements of the concept of equality and fairness at work are being embraced by the fire service." The purpose of the report is to recommend changes where needed, and to highlight "best practices," in terms of fire service employment and service delivery. It follows on the heels of a strongly worded warning by the Home Secretary the previous spring that the British fire service's record on equality issues was unacceptable, and that it was time for the service to "stop making excuses and get its house in order."

Much of what the Inspectorate discovered about the status of women and other traditionally excluded groups in the British fire service will be very familiar to female firefighters elsewhere. Because its findings are quite relevant to any fire service agency that manages a diversifying workforce, we are providing extensive quotes from, and commentary on, this important report. It is also our hope that the report will motivate the fire service in the U.S. to produce a comparable assessment of its progress.

Equality and fairness

While praising the quality of service provided by the nation's fire brigades, the report was highly critical of the status given to equality and fairness issues within those brigades. It found, in general,

an absence of appreciation, at any but the highest levels, of the benefits which would accrue to the service and the community from advancement of equality and fairness in the fire service. The only focus recognised, was the need to respond to political and governmental initiatives relating to racial or gender equality... Any drive in this direction was often therefore seen as little more than "political correctness."

The Inspectorate found that the concept of "fairness" itself was often misunderstood. Most commonly, fire personnel expressed a belief that "fairness" = "equal" = "the same" = "identical," with no recognition that fairness can only be judged on outcomes, not on input. A simple example shows the weakness of the equation. Under a "fairness means identical" approach -- purportedly treating "everyone the same" -- an instructor might require all firefighters to tie knots right-handed, or a fire chief might say, "We don't have maternity policies for men, so we won't have them for women, either." Real fairness can only be assessed by looking at the impact of the policy or input, and not the input itself.

In addition, fairness was not generally viewed as something of value in itself, but rather as something firefighters and officers must do in order to comply with directives from above. Unfortunately, in many brigades, concerns over recrimination in this area had led to an atmosphere of concern and even fear, leading to an overall negative impression of equality issues.

This attitude was in apparent conflict with the dedication most brigade members showed to providing a high level of service without regard to the class, race, sex or religion of the people being helped. "The sense of... pride in that and in the commitment to providing service was evident." Yet at the same time, there was no commitment to internalizing that sense of fairness within the fire service itself:

A very clear focus on service delivery to the public (was) converted into a reason for the maintenance of the existing white male dominated organisation, in order to guard against the "dropping of standards"... The objective of many of the workforce... seemed to be the continuation of the status quo.

Particular opposition was expressed towards any form of affirmative action or targeted recruitment of people of color, women, or other under-represented groups.

The predominant view... was that the traditional approaches, which had resulted in the existing membership of the service, had proved their worth... Any form of positive (affirmative) action... was seen as unnecessary, and both objectionable and unacceptable in the context of fairness.

Women firefighters

The Inspectorate found the general attitude towards the idea of women firefighters was one of continued and open hostility. While it did meet some women firefighters "who... had been able to become accepted and indeed respected for what they were and what they brought to the job,"

The overwhelming collective view of uniformed staff, including many officers... was strong opposition to women being employed in the operational fire service. Many reasons were given, but the overriding view was that women were not capable of doing "a man's job"... It was believed that no woman could be strong enough, or fit enough, to meet the requirements of the job. This belief was directly linked to the certainty that standards are being dropped in order to allow women to join and remain in the service.

Some opposition was also based on "genuine, if misconceived, concerns for (women's) welfare and health in the long term." Others questioned the motivation of women who wished to become firefighters, alleging that they were doing so in order either to file false claims of discrimination and get a financial settlement, or to steal someone's husband.

Where male firefighters and officers had actually worked with women, attitudes were "generally more relaxed" and supportive, but even so, "the woman who was accepted as a firefighter colleague was seen as the exception that proved the rule." Women in the retained (volunteer) fire service faced the same types of opposition as wholetime (career) firefighters, with acceptance or hostility more often on a station-by-station basis. [It should be noted that the percentage of women in the fire service in the U.K. is even smaller than in the U.S: one half of one percent of wholetime firefighters, and 1.5% of retained firefighters, are women, as compared with numbers four times higher in the U.S.]

The overall conclusion of the report is that the U.K fire service is "institutionally sexist" and must make "rapid and fundamental changes" in this regard. It calls for

major change in the culture of a service that is so strongly opposed to women being able to join the uniformed section and perform operational duties... (W)e are certain... that there are significant numbers of women who might wish to join. The limiting factor simply is the lack of willingness of male-dominated "macho" culture to accept this self-evident fact... The manner in which the service has dealt with the issue of gender over the past twenty years needs to be accepted as a phase...

Interestingly, half of the chief officers returning the Inspectorate's questionnaire indicated their belief that "the workforce readily accepts women firefighters into their brigades on their merits." The report comments, "This suggests a lack of appreciation of the true situation... chief officers who think women will be readily accepted display a lack of understanding of the issues..."

The Inspectorate found sexual harassment to be common, ranging from "routine" actions "such as men urinating over the floor and toilet rolls in the women's toilet, or the display of pornographic videos at fire stations," to much more serious actions and allegations. "The incidence of sexual harassment was frequently rationalised by firefighters and senior officers on the basis that often the women were not up to the rigours of the job." One disturbing note is that all women who had pursued harassment complaints to an employment tribunal -- a comparable step to filing with the EEOC in the U.S. -- had left the fire service.

From the standpoint of those who had been harassed, regular disciplinary processes were viewed as being of little value in stopping harassment. "The formality of the processes, the burden of proof and the extended appeals facilities were seen as weighted in the favour of those who abuse fairness rather than those who suffer from that abuse." Cases were cited where personnel found guilty of harassment had had their discipline reduced, or had been promoted shortly afterwards to positions where they supervised the employee who had filed the complaint.

The inspection teams found the lack of attention to providing properly fitting gear and appropriate station facilities a "worrying indicator" of brigades' commitment (or lack of commitment) to dignity at work for women. It noted that many women firefighters accept ill-fitting gear in order to avoid a confrontation, and commented strongly that this is "totally unacceptable" when it has to do with safety equipment.

Health and safety considerations at least ought to ensure properly fitting protective equipment. This problem extends to a philosophy that requires people in the service generally to fit the equipment rather than redesign the equipment.

The report calls for a sweeping change in the culture of the fire service in order to address institutionalized sexism:

The culture should change to allow women to be valued for the contribution they can make to the job as well as maintaining that they can, and should be different, as women. This requires affording them facilities that recognise and enable differences to be dealt with, with dignity, as a right and not a privilege. These facilities can be as simple as providing uniform items suitable for the shape or size of women or requir(ing) building works or reallocation of existing facilities, to provide toilet, shower or locker rooms. We have concluded that in the main, only lip service has been given to these needs and that a real and determined commitment is now necessary...

It also specifically encourages fire service women's networking, both for its value in supporting women on the job and for its effectiveness in bringing issues forward:

The support of women members who wish to contribute to or benefit from... women's groups or networks was also a matter of difficulty in some brigades. Improved understanding of the role of these groups is required. The current situation where many women firefighters avoid membership is an unfortunate manifestation of the culture that is resisting diversity... (S)trengthening the arrangements for women's networks should be enthusiastically supported, not only by every brigade management, but also by women in the service. In addition to providing support, this improvement would be of great assistance in furthering the identification of issues so they can be dealt with productively.

Ethnic minority firefighters

Opinions about male firefighters of color (referred to in the report as "black and ethnic minority firefighters") were somewhat more moderate than those about women. Racism surfaced in the discussions between brigade personnel and Inspectorate team interviewers, although it was rarely overt in the way sexism was. As the team members perceptively observed:

The vast majority of staff expressed no antagonistic views or feelings about people from the black and ethnic communities joining the service. Although there was this spoken acceptance, there was also an inherent proviso that this should not be allowed to let "standards" drop, as if the two issues were directly linked.

Minority firefighters specifically cited problems with inappropriate language and humor, and pointed to a lack of management commitment to fair treatment or policy enforcement. Overall, the Inspectorate found "a surprising and worrying ignorance of matters relating to race and culture" and concluded that the fire service might be held to be "institutionally racist."

This will have to change... (E)xisting and future members of the service from the black and ethnic minority communities must feel able to recommend a career in the service to members of their communities. Their message to us was that they could not do so at present.

Particularly notable was the small number of people of color serving as retained firefighters: only 54 out of a total of 14,500. While rural communities typically served by retained fire stations are heavily white areas with few minority residents, even this can not be the whole explanation for such small numbers. Of particular concern for the future of the fire service are policies that advantage retained firefighters in the hiring process for wholetime positions. At least six brigades surveyed currently give some form of hiring preference to retained firefighters, and some are considering automatically filling wholetime positions with retained personnel. Given the racially loaded "residency filter" through which retained firefighters must pass, giving such an advantage would clearly have a chilling impact on diversity.

Gay and lesbian firefighters

If opposition to women firefighters was found to be strong, and sensitivity to racism definitely lacking, the Inspectorate identified the greatest challenges to fairness when it came to the issue of lesbians and gay men working in the fire service.

The most difficult of all the tasks faced by the service in advancing equality and fairness, will be moving opinion and understanding on the issue of sexuality... In this area there was no understanding of the issues, nor any preparedness to contemplate them.

A Gay and Lesbian Support Group has existed within the Fire Brigades Union for several years, providing support for hundreds of gay and lesbian firefighters as well as information to fire brigade management on relevant issues. Despite their work, the group's leadership felt it was unsafe for gay and lesbian firefighters "to be open about their sexuality in the working environment, because of the inherent hostility that exists." The Inspectorate concludes:

The service is not currently capable of dealing positively with sexuality... not least, because it does not recognise this as a real-life matter that applies to the service... We recommend that brigades take steps to review and strengthen the protection of members of the service who come from the gay and lesbian community, through the inclusion of sexuality within equality and fairness policies. Without this reassurance, these people are without protection from (workplace) discrimination and harassment.

The pressure to assimilate

The report notes with concern the pressures that coerce women and minority firefighters to assimilate to the dominant culture of the fire service. It appears that the highest mark of acceptance male co-workers can give a woman firefighter is that she was able to "fit in:"

This "fitting in" with the dominant culture was almost universally seen as the principal requirement for everybody in the service. In a few instances the need to do so had resulted in women adopting a role that made their gender "invisible."

Men of color also reported finding that their acceptance depends on their willingness and ability to fit into the culture as it exists, "with no account being taken of the background, traditions or preferences of individuals." Retained (volunteer) firefighters felt this pressure even more than wholetime firefighters, due to the isolation and "closed nature" of the volunteer stations.

The requirement that women make their gender invisible in order to succeed, as well as other pressures placed on women firefighters, was of "great concern" to the Inspectorate. They found many women had been forced to develop coping mechanisms to an extent that "would not be acceptable to any reasonable person."


The Inspectorate concludes that while the fire service in the U.K. "continues to win public support for its external activity," its lack of ability to change and modernize internally is troubling. While it found a "wealth of good intention" as regards equality and fairness issues, particularly at top levels of the fire service, there was also a pervasive lack of leadership in pushing these issues. Occasionally, too, the commitment itself was lacking:

(Most) officers... declared strong commitment to achieving equality and fairness throughout their brigades. In one case, however, the team was told that the brigade had needed a "break from equal opportunities," in view of the overall demands and pressures of recent years. On the basis of our inspections, the reality in this brigade and in most of the others, was rather different.

Despite the evident commitment in most places, the report concludes, "positive outcomes, which are the only measure of success, have yet to be achieved." What is needed now is to "walk the talk:" to convert good intentions into meaningful activity leading to cultural change. The report offers a list of detailed recommendations for each level of the fire service and its administrative agencies, from the Home Office on down.

The greatest gains in equality and fairness issues will only come by changing the culture of the fire service. The report gets to the core of the problem -- the essence of what women, people of color, lesbians and gay men often come up against when they attempt to make progress in the fire service -- when it articulates an intrinsic belief of that culture:

That the small number of people that constitute the majority in the fire service has a right to maintain its own secure position irrespective of the needs of others in society.

In such a context, there will not be many who "welcome or celebrate diversity, or (are) ready to encourage wider participation of minority groups," and indeed the inspection teams found few such individuals. Fire personnel who are not from the majority group will be valued on their ability to fit in, whatever the personal cost to them and whatever the loss to the fire servicein terms of the talents of potential firefighters who could not, or would not, make their differences invisible. The value placed on being able to fit in goes unchallenged, to the extent that simply raising gender-identified issues such as the need for maternity leave or child care is often "taken as proof of the inability... to be part of the uniformed service."

A crucial element in this cultural change is to first change "the style of leadership and the processes of management within the fire service." While operations at fires and other emergency scenes require quick reaction and strict discipline, this method of operation has little application to the daily routine in the fire station. Yet what the report refers to as "command power" is kept in place for "activities that require leadership and management, rather than automatic obedience to orders." As a consequence, it might also have been noted, fire officers therefore do not are not required to learn how good management skills, nor do they routinely have the opportunity to do so, either by observation or by formal training.

Better training on equality issues is also needed, at all levels from elected officials on fire boards to recruit firefighters. The methodology of current equalities training was questioned: current training is often aimed at teaching people what the brigade's policy is and what they need to do to comply with it, rather than "changing attitudes and winning understanding." As a result, compliance was often obtained only at the price of resentment and opposition, and attitudes were actually found to be more reasonable in brigades where there was little commitment to equalities training.

The report also cautions of the dangers of depending too heavily on specialist advisors to advise and train management and the workforce on equality/fairness issues. What is really needed, it concludes, "is to transfer proper responsibility for, and real ownership of, equality and fairness to those who have supervisory responsibilities at all levels within the service," and provide the training that can make this happen.

In the area of best practices, the report specifically cites the Firefighter Development Programme of the London Fire and Civil Defense Authority and encourages other brigades to follow the LFCDA's lead.

The whole emphasis of the training, and indeed the selection of recruits for that training, had been changed as part of a major review of organisational culture. Here the intention was to select recruits with a broader range of life skills and social awareness. They were then trained to a syllabus that reduces time spent on some of the elements found in conventional recruit training, to enable time to be devoted to encouraging understanding... The approach had led to the selection of individuals who could fit the real needs of today's firefighters, while bringing in a range of other skills and attributes to the service. This recognition existed among officers across the range of ranks and responsibilities.

The report also gives high marks to the work the Fire Brigades Union has done in promoting equality and fairness.

They have been particularly active in pursuit of equality issues over recent years and it is to their credit that most local officials have willingly accepted this emphasis. This leadership has resulted in extensive training for its officials to enable them to support policy objectives. The benefits of this were evident during our discussions... The union has also enabled support groups for those in minorities within its membership, as well as providing "help lines" to support the broader membership.

The report includes a four-page "Equality and Fairness Checklist for Fire Brigades" that would be useful to fire agencies anywhere in assessing competence on these issues. The checklist covers items in the areas of strategy and policy, monitoring, leadership, service delivery, recruitment, promotion and selection, help and support, resources, task groups, and training.

"Equality and Fairness in the Fire Service" is a comprehensive study that clearly evidences the interest of the Home Office in a workforce that "promotes fairness and equal opportunity both in the provision of services and in their own employment policies." The report should serve as encouragement to those in the fire service who have been working for equality and fairness, and as a wake-up call to those who have left the matter on the back burner, or worse. It should also provide an impetus to the U.S. fire service to mandate a similar inquiry into its own progress in dealing with these issues.

Terese M. Floren Executive Director

This article originally appeared in the September-October 1999 issue of FireWork. It is copyright © 1999 Women in the Fire Service, Inc., and may not be reprinted without written permission from WFS.




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