Shifting Cultures: Addressing Discrimination in the London Fire Brigade

Under scrutiny: London Fire Brigade crews attend an emergency incident in the City of London. Image: David Richards / Alamy

A year on from reviews which identified how systemic discrimination was damaging the reputation and response of UK public services, institutions like the London Fire Brigade are struggling with how to change deeply engrained cultural dynamics.

In privileged societies, citizens have been conditioned to depend on public services like fire, police and ambulance services to respond in case of emergency or danger and to be there to aid or defend them. Children are often raised to admire these public servants, and their bravery and commitment are honoured and respected. However, when such services falter or when social trust in them is damaged, it becomes necessary to consider how to shift their internal cultures at the same time as society is asking them to defend citizens and their wellbeing.

There have been extensive public debates in the UK following culture reviews of the Metropolitan Police and the London Fire Brigade (LFB), among others. These reviews have highlighted systemic sexism, racism and other discrimination within the services. While it is important not to paint all services and service members with a broad brush or tarnish the selfless public service of so many of these individuals, it is necessary to look at where systemic discrimination is harming trust and effectiveness and damaging the ability of the services to fulfil their roles.

RUSI has recently published research on the cultural challenges of these dynamics in relation to the security forces, focusing on the police and the military. In conjunction with the culture reviews in the UK, global events such as the involvement of current and former service members in the storming of the US Capitol building have focused attention on the threat of systemic discrimination and how it can reduce resilience within the ranks to extremism and extremist ideology.

In our work on the security services, we have found that the fire services – while often involved in responding to security crises – need to be considered in a slightly different light. This is primarily due to the difference in their mandate, as while they are a public service, they are not an enforcer of domestic law or national security. However, the culture review has highlighted that they suffer from many of the same systemic cultural issues, and evidence suggests that institutional change remains a difficult prospect.

Service identity can be reinforced through a sense of duty to an idealised, racialised, masculine version of heroism which can encourage an exclusionary attitude towards those who do not match that image

Following the independent review, the LFB was moved into 'enhanced monitoring’ by His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services. The review cited patterns of discrimination aimed at minority groups and women, with staff members reporting a ‘bullying culture that stubbornly persisted’. Further, the review emphasised that the values and culture the LFB should be committed to are not always reflected in its leadership. However, the review’s findings were accepted by the LFB’s Commissioner without reservation.

Upon speaking with senior members of the LFB who are involved in assessing and addressing the cultural issues raised in the review, a few significant points emerge which align with some of the insights from our wider research on these dynamics. Fundamentally, the LFB is steeped in a deep history of service and heroism, especially in the context of the Second World War. Public trust is essential to the organisation, and it invests in building trust through community outreach. As it is a smaller force than the police, for example, there is a sense of belonging and family allegiance within the unit structures of the LFB that is also aligned with a commitment to keeping up tradition. These can be positive bonds and connections which facilitate effective unit responses in emergencies. However, they can also encourage determined resistance to change on several levels.

First, in recruitment and onboarding practices, there is such a commitment to idolising the past that it can hinder moving on. Where diversity might be associated with modernising the service, this tendency then presents as a resistance to encouraging diversity. The LFB has a diversity and inclusion strategy, but diversified recruitment remains below targets. Additionally, there is a concern that when new recruits are brought in, if peer-group or unit dynamics are discriminatory or toxic in nature then the pressure to fit in can encourage adoption of those behaviours and beliefs.

Second, hypermasculinity – the exaggeration of masculine stereotypes such as aggression, dominance and strength – and other discriminatory elements can often form part of training regimes. Service identity can be reinforced through a sense of duty to an idealised, racialised, masculine version of heroism which can encourage an exclusionary attitude towards those who do not match that image, such as women and minorities. If these cultural dynamics are being reinforced rather than addressed through training, this impacts not only the internal cohesion of the service unit but also the outward perception of the service and thus recruitment possibilities. This can ultimately become a paradox, as with lower recruitment the tempo remains higher, reducing time for adequate training and sensitisation and thus diminishing the LFB’s ability to diversify itself and improve recruitment.

There must be an institutional shift towards valuing diversity and inclusiveness, rather than seeing it as a mandatory exercise to satisfy externally imposed measures

Third, there are internal command and governance structures which impact cultural dynamics. Within the LFB, a person can go the length of their service in one unit, which highlights the importance of understanding internal unit influences and the leadership decisions that oversee them. It remains up to the Group Commander (overseeing four units) to enforce governance and training and oversee cultural dynamics. The command structure is based on seniority, which is built on credit and duration of experience. Where there are more limitations on individuals entering certain specialist (or action-oriented) roles, or where length of service might be interrupted by social or parental duties, this presents disadvantages for minority groups within the service in terms of moving up the command structure and therefore taking up a role in enforcing cultural dynamics and diversification.

Finally, it is important to consider the mentality around service and perceptions of what qualifies as good service. Especially in specialist units that are responding to extreme crises on a regular basis, there is a need to continue building psychological understanding of how an individual can switch from normality to extreme environments on demand while maintaining a belief system and code of conduct. There is also a need, as with security services, to destigmatise service-related mental health issues and care. This is true both for those in active service and for those who have left the services, who might need help with the transition back into civilian life.

The above points all overlap and highlight some of the challenges in shifting deeply rooted cultural dynamics. There must be an institutional acceptance that valuing diversity and inclusiveness is necessary for cohesion, effectiveness and the ability to maintain positive culture and mental health, rather than seeing it as a mandatory exercise to satisfy externally imposed measures. Additionally, there must be a bottom-up effort among service members to challenge discriminatory beliefs and behaviours, which takes a great deal of courage, commitment and credibility. However, shifting towards more diverse, equitable and inclusive cultures ultimately helps to protect and enrich the lives of those who are acting in the public service.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors’, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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