A Birmingham city councillor said current equipment requires firefighters to be clean-shaven and can act as a barrier to inclusivity.
Councillor Sybil Spence’s comments came on Tuesday while the council discussed a report on the West Midlands Fire and Rescue Authority.
West Midlands Fire Service (WMFS) was hailed as ‘one of the best in the country’ and received glowing praise for its work during the summer heat waves.
Amid the praise were some observations relating to diversity and inclusivity where councillors believe there is still some work to be done. Councillor Spence asked for more ‘flexibility’ towards beards and firefighters’ equipment.
She said: “Firefighters have to wear breathing apparatus. For this to be obeyed, they have to be clean-shaven. At the moment, there are no breathing apparatus sets that meet the standard that allow for facial hair.
“This may be a barrier for Muslims, Sikhs or Orthodox Jews, as well as individuals with medical conditions that make shaving difficult.
“At the end of 2021, there was a review of the service’s uniform policy, specifically around facial hair. This enables the members of staff some flexibility to wear their hair.
“The uniform policy is now under review to extend to allow staff to choose whatever uniform they choose to wear. This campaign went on for many years, but with this review, everyone will be free to work safely.”
Councillor Spence received a round of applause from the council chamber after her speech had finished. Her comments were echoed by the lead member for the West Midlands Fire and Rescue Authority, Councillor Zafar Iqbal.
He said: “WMFS remains committed to being a diverse, inclusive service which reflects the population and communities it represents. However, it is recognised that some important operational policies in place to protect the health and safety of staff may make it difficult for people of certain beliefs to pursue a career in the fire and rescue service.
“The service is working proactively to make the WMFS as inclusive as possible and to overcome any barriers that might affect the health and safety of our staff. It would quite simply be wrong for the service in the West Midlands not to reflect the incredible diversity of the region we serve.”
Regarding this issue, the WMFS report reads: “At the end of 2021, work was commissioned to review the service’s uniform policy, specifically around facial hair with a view to enabling uniformed personnel who are not likely to be required to wear breathing apparatus to wear facial hair.
“The benefits of providing greater flexibility for members of staff to have facial hair. This policy is progressing towards consultation.
“The review of our uniform policy also extends to what our people choose to wear. We understand that members of staff, including operational employees, may consider the wearing of religious or cultural dress and symbols an important expression of an individual’s religion, belief, or identity and WMFS will, wherever reasonable, support these wishes.”
Also in the report were details regarding a recent vote by firefighters to reject a five per cent pay offer. Councillor Iqbal said a strike ballot is now being held.
Councillor David Barrie remarked on Tuesday on a recent inspection into WMFS by His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services, which began in January 2022 and concluded on 21 May 2022.
He said: “There is no reason to suggest that the verdict on our fire service is going to be anything other than extremely positive. Fire and rescue services across the country are not equal and ours is one of the best.
“The only negative is the prospect of industrial action. Firefighters have been offered five per cent and I believe they are going to go to the ballot over that. I really hope that we can come to an agreement with the Fire Brigades Union and we don’t have disruption.”
Cabinet member for social justice, community safety and equality, Councillor John Cotton, said: “The fire service has a very obvious and immediate role in keeping people safe and it’s a role that requires great skill, discipline, and bravery in equal measure. That has certainly been tested over the last year.
“I was particularly struck by the impact of the period of extremely hot weather that we experienced last year, something that I think sadly not going to be a one-off event given the climate crisis that we face.”