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Opinion: Hot under the collar

The fire service is the latest institution to come under criticism for its 'macho' canteen culture. Under instruction from the Home Office, HM Fire Service Inspectorate has conducted a 'thematic review' into equality and fairness in the fire service. Not surprisingly, the service has been found wanting.

Among the many points of contention is the representation of women in the service (just 436 out of a uniformed service of 33 597) and the attitudes of fire service personnel towards what is now known as 'diversity'.

The small number of women firefighters is hardly a shock given the nature of the work. The inspectorate appears to have been taken aback by the number of fire service personnel who thought that men might be better than women at hauling people out of burning buildings. This may be unfashionably gender insensitive, but one suspects that it might be true. If I were stuck at the top of a burning building I suspect I would value brute strength over political correctness. I might prefer a member of the fire service who didn't use sexist language or tell racist jokes, but the bottom line would be whether he or she could throw me over a shoulder and carry me safely out of danger.

This is where, whether we like it or not, women members of the fire service face a disadvantage. There are always the exceptions that prove the rule, but it is undeniable that women are usually smaller and slighter than men are. I can accept that when lugging a body around technique probably matters more than muscle mass, but it still figures that a male firefighter with a good technique is probably going to be more effective than a female firefighter with a good technique. Unfair as it is, in some situations size matters.

Brain may be generally more important than brawn, and the argument that a woman's lack of physical strength may be compensated by her intelligence and suss is compelling. But women do not have the monopoly on intelligence and suss, and I find it hard to disagree with the arguments put by the more backward, unreconstructed men of 'Whatever Watch' that their male colleagues are more likely to be versatile than those who are women.

There is a justifiable fear that in the attempt to integrate women into the fire service, standards may be lowered. It is true that weightlifting and height requirements discriminate against women, but if these are the conditions required by the nature of firefighting it would be stupid to compromise them for the sake of an appropriately diverse gender mix. Fires presumably have no sense of 'appropriate' values.

The offensive against the canteen culture seems more deserving of support. Okay, there may be reasons against sending a five-foot two-inch, eight-and-a-half-stone woman up a ladder to rescue a 12-stone guy, but surely there is no excuse for the sexist, elitist, macho verbiage that passes for everyday social engagement in the force? Or is there?

Think for a moment about what fire service personnel do. They risk their lives to defend those outside their ranks. They rely completely on their colleagues. They must trust beyond question every member of the team. Given the intensity of this relationship, it is not surprising that they develop a banter, a teasing based on a closed code and sense of those who belong and those who are excluded. Unlike the school playground, this social arena is not susceptible to the intervention of a teacher who can tell the big boys that they must let Johnny or Joanna play. If you can't relate to the lads in the canteen, can you support them in moments of crisis? Perhaps, but perhaps not, and in life-threatening situations it is not simply a matter of providing support but of being trusted to provide support.

Home Office commissioners and inspectors need to accept that the fire service exists in and creates a different environment to a town hall, and that it may not be possible to apply the same bureaucratic codes of conduct across the board. The fire service needs to be evaluated on how many lives and properties it saves, not on its sensitivity to diversity issues or its inclusiveness.

A final note on the gap between images and real life. After the Paddington train crash, many papers ran a front-page picture apparently of a weeping woman firefighter. When they later tracked her down, she was outraged at the suggestion that she had been weeping on the job. She simply had dirt in her eye. Asked if she had received counselling, she said she had been to the pub with the rest of her watch. Her senior officer described her as 'one of the lads'.

Ann Bradley

Reproduced from LM issue 125, November 1999



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