Ninety-three per cent of firefighters are men. It is definitely, despite any political instincts to the contrary, a masculine sort of occupation, running into burning buildings. Like working North Sea rigs, and trench warfare, and driving golf carts off the end of piers – it’s something men do. And glad of it we all are, in different ways and at different times. These sorts of behaviours are, when done well, why women put up with us.
It’s not to say that women don’t, and certainly not that they can’t run into the fire. In Britain, just over 7% of firefighters are women, and it seems the men haven’t been exactly welcoming.
Nazir Afzal’s report into Fire Brigade culture has come out, and headlines have declared that misogyny, bullying and racism are endemic in the service. An Urgent Question was granted, it was asked and answered by the Police Minister (“Where’s the Home secretary!”). He deplored the revelations and declared ‘ethics should be at the heart of the fire service.’
Tories were tempted to say, “Rollocks. Running into burning buildings should be at the heart of the fire service.”
And others on the right might wanted to have said, “You can’t change human nature.”
But it did sound pretty terrible, the testimony of 2,000 London firefighters. What goes on in those fire stations was, as several MPs said, like what went on in the Metropolitan police before the missionaries were sent in. The report has given us a horrid picture of what has come to be called “toxic masculinity”.
The white banter bullied a young black recruit to suicide. Women’s helmets were filled with urine. Their clothes stained with sex fluids. They put a noose on a black fireman’s locker.
Is it too much to ask that firemen be decent human beings as well?
“It probably is,” the older Tory will say. “You can’t change human nature.”
“But,” the clever young man will say, “you can change human behaviour. It’s why we have laws.”
On the Labour side, their Urgent Questioner urged the case for decency in the service. “If that’s woke, let there be more woke. Being woke is a good thing.”
It is not necessary to be woke, politically correct or even left wing to ask for decent behaviour. What a world we have created – where modern pieties can be culturally crushing over here and yet, over there, medieval coarseness rules.
It’s the result of a colossal failure of management – both by the Fire Service and by the Fire Brigade Union whose purpose in life is to safeguard the interests of their members – women, men, white or not. Calls for the long-promised national review and investigation into the fire service is, as many said, well overdue.