Citing figures that show firefighters in England are 96 per cent white and 95 per cent male, a Home Office minister slammed fire services over a “woeful” lack of ‘diversity’.
Speaking in London on Tuesday, minister for policing and the fire service Brandon Lewis said workplace demographics should resemble the surrounding community, and demanded the fire and rescue services “spring into action” to increase ‘diversity’.
“Any workforce should represent the community that it serves, but in fire this simply is not the case. I’ve been to fire stations where I noticed more diversity in the hoses used than I have in the workforce”, he said.
At the event, hosted by think tank Reform, Lewis declared that “the proportion of Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) and female firefighters must increase”, and said he welcomed a target set by Commissioner Dany Cotton to increase the percentage of female operational staff in London Fire Brigade from 7 per cent to 18 per cent.
The Home Office minister said that any attempt to blame the lack of diversity on a reduction in recruitment “isn’t good enough”, and demanded a “culture shift”.
Drawing attention to how almost a third of its workers are due to retire in the next few years, he said this marks a “golden opportunity” for the fire service to increase staff diversity.
Praising police forces in Britain for hiring lower proportions of white men than ever before, but warning that it “still has a way to go” on this front, Lewis called for the fire service to follow their example.
He said: “I want the Local Government Association and fire and rescue services to spring into action and follow the example of the police. Once up and running, I also expect the new inspectorate to identify barriers to diversity across services and for each service to respond to the issues that it faces.”
In 2008 Avon Fire Service banned white men from four out of five of its open days because bosses wanted to hit diversity targets. Despite the West Country brigade’s efforts, it emerged that just one ethnic minority joined its staff following the targeted recruitment sessions.
In an attempt to boost the number of women who sign up, the fire brigade significantly relaxed strength and fitness tests for new recruits in 2011. Before this, potential firefighters had to extend a 100kg ladder by themselves in 20 seconds to qualify, but following reform candidates are only required to lift a 30kg weight over their head.
‘Beep tests’, in which candidates had to complete increasingly fast sprints, were also scrapped, along with having to carry a 12 stone person 100 yards in less than a minute.