The head of the London fire brigade has personally apologised to the mother of a black firefighter whose suicide triggered a review of the service and found it to be “institutionally misogynist and racist”.
The review by Nazir Afzal, involving testimonies from 2,000 members of staff, found “dangerous levels of ingrained prejudice against women” and that people of colour were “frequently the target of racist abuse”, and it made 23 recommendations to the service.
The review was launched by the London fire commissioner, Andy Roe, in response to the death of Jaden Matthew Francois-Esprit, who was neurodiverse, had been diagnosed with dyslexia, and who took his own life aged 21 in August 2020.
Speaking at a meeting of the London assembly’s fire, resilience and emergency planning committee on Wednesday, Roe directly addressed Francois-Esprit’s mother, Linda Francois.
“LFB let your son down in almost every aspect,” he said. “In terms of our system, in terms of how he experienced his work day to day. I felt it happened on my watch. He had been let down by me and by everyone sitting beneath me. The system should have recognised his vulnerability. Seeing you here now, I can only apologise for the public record.”
He added: “Sadly, Jaden wasn’t the first colleague to take his life. There is a high rate of suicide in the emergency services generally.”
Francois welcomed the apology from Roe and the steps LFB is taking to change its culture. But she said it had more work to do.
“Nobody at the station where Jaden worked has been held accountable for what happened to him,” she said. “We want the LFB to connect the dots and I’m not sure they’re doing that. So many different pressures were piling up on Jaden at work and I don’t think the full extent of the trauma he was going through has been acknowledged. For me as his mum, it’s important that his full story is told.”
Afzal told the meeting: “Large parts of the fire service don’t feel safe. More than 150 of the 450 female staff engaged with us. Women told us they had been suffering from sexual abuse, sexual harassment.” He said LFB had a culture of “Fifo – fit in or fuck off”.
He added: “This is the fire service’s #MeToo moment. There needs to be a mechanism by which others can hear and respond. There is no safe place for a firefighter of colour anywhere in this country.”
Roe said two recent cases under investigation could lead to criminal charges, and that most of the cases under investigation as a result of Afzal’s review related to bullying and harassment.
He said the changes he hoped to see in the fire service were not yet embedded. “This is a process of fundamental change,” he said.