Micky Nicholas: ‘The fire service was a negative environment for black people – but it’s changed’

Micky Nicholas joined the London Fire Brigade in 1990. ‘People patted me on the shoulder and clapped,’ he said, because they had never seen a black firefighter.

When Michael – aka Micky – Nicholas, 53, joined the London fire brigade (LFB) in 1990, just 3% of firefighters in the capital were from black and minority ethnic (BAME) communities. He recalls “people patting me on the shoulder, and clapping”, when they saw him getting out of a fire engine because they’d never before seen a black firefighter.

Since then, he has worked tirelessly to make fire and rescue services more inclusive and more representative of the communities they serve. Nicholas advised the New Labour government on its 10-year Fire and Rescue Service Equality and Diversity strategy; advises, supports and implements LFB policies on recruitment and positive action and is an adviser on the Inclusive Fire Service Group (IFSG), a body set up two years ago to develop strategies to improve diversity in the UK.

His efforts in London have not been in vain, with 604 BAME operational staff now in place out of 4,617 (13.8%). In England, the lack of diversity is dire. BAME firefighters make up 3.8% of the workforce, according to Home Office figures, despite making up 14.6% of the wider population. A higher number (6.6%) work in back office roles. Across the UK, 3.2% of the 49,111 uniformed staff come from BAME groups, according to the IFSG. But it is not just minorities who are poorly represented. Just 5% of firefighters in England are women and 6.5% UK-wide.

Last year, while still home secretary, Theresa May lambasted fire and rescue services for being 96% white and 95% male, and for allowing a “culture of bullying and harassment”. She called for a radical programme of reform.

Nicholas believes passionately that the more representative the workforce, the better the service. “One of my biggest things when I first joined was the way that white colleagues spoke about people in my community. We’ve had a couple of incidents – not in London, but in other parts of the country – where firefighters have turned up to do a fire safety for a mosque and refused to take their shoes off … If you’ve got someone who happens to be a Muslim on your watch who is telling you this is what your community needs, there is more chance they will do it.”

Born in east London to African-Caribbean parents, he joined the LFB aged 26 after doing a variety of jobs including painter and decorator and working for the post office. Nepotism was widespread then, says Nicholas, and black people, women and members of the LGBT community were deterred from a profession seen as white and macho. “They weren’t applying, but when they did they didn’t get in. Now it’s just about getting them to apply.” He walked into an almost entirely white workforce where he experienced discriminatory language and behaviour. “I often say I joined as a firefighter. The London fire brigade – or the people in it – made me a black firefighter. I didn’t have a particularly nice time when I first joined.”

He quickly became a rep for the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and has since been elected to a succession of lay official roles, and is now secretary of its black and ethnic minority members section. Only 3% of the union’s 34,000-strong membership is BAME. Perhaps ironically for a union committed to improve diversity, the FBU’s executive council, on which Nicholas used to sit, is all white and all male following a conference decision five years ago to scrap reserved seats for under-represented groups as part of a cost-saving exercise. Nicholas sees this as “a massive backward step”.

Positive Action – initiatives to attract under-represented groups – is crucial to creating a more diverse workforce, says Nicholas. But the concept can be challenging to a predominantly white workforce as some will see it as “giving a leg up”. He adds: “You’ve got to be politically brave – and within the law – but sometimes you have to challenge and clarify for your existing white male workforce exactly why you’re doing things. And that is a massive difficulty for the national fire service.”

Numbers were boosted after 1997, he says, because equality and positive action schemes such as open days and targeted advertising were introduced. Initiatives dried up after the coalition government came in because equality and diversity issues were handed back to local control and cuts kicked in. “People were saying we are not going to be recruiting anyway so why are we doing positive action? There’s no point.”

Now it is back on the agenda. With a third of the workforce due to retire soon, the government has made it clear that ensuring the workforce reflects the communities it serves is a key priority.

As part of this drive, the Local Government Association, which represents all fire and rescue authorities in England and Wales, published a report in March on how to achieve this. In a survey, it found most fire and rescue services in England planned initiatives to achieve an increasingly diverse firefighter workforce, such as outreach and the offer of help with the recruitment process. Far fewer, however, said they monitor the recruitment process to establish the reasons behind dropout rates among women, BAME and LGBT candidates.

Nicholas was involved in drawing up the LFB’s 10-year inclusion strategy, launched last year, which aims to increase the number of BAME recruits from 13% to 25% and of operational female recruits from 7% to 18% by 2026.

“We are bringing back the team that concentrated solely on outreach before the coalition cuts came in, to give us the very best opportunity to diversify the workforce that is coming in.” Activities will include open days and giving potential candidates pointers about applying and the test requirements, given that a significant number of BAME applicants drop out of the recruitment at the written test stage, according to Nicholas. Other initiatives include looking at bringing back equality training in the workplace. Earlier this summer, he was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s birthday honours list “for services to the Fire and Rescue Service and BAME community in London”. “If it does one thing, I hope that it says to people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds that they can join the service in whatever realm. We have got a good density of [BAME] staff in administration roles, though that isn’t the case nationally – and very few are in senior positions. On the frontline, we need even more [BAME] fire officers.”

Tellingly, the father of five can now envisage supporting his own children to apply. “Many years ago I couldn’t even think of encouraging my kids to being in what I saw as a fairly negative environment for black people and for women. Now, certainly in the London fire brigade, I would support that – dare I say encourage it.”

CV
Age 53.

Lives London.

Family Married, five children.

Education St Philip Howard secondary school, Poplar, London.

Career April 2015-present: Watch manager, London fire brigade; 2013-15: crew manager, London fire brigade; 1990-2013: firefighter, London fire brigade.

Public life Secretary, Fire Brigades Union’s black and ethnic minority members section; TUC general council; TUC race committee; 2006-14: Labour councillor (Newham); 2002-12 Fire Brigades Union executive council; MBE 2017 Queen’s birthday honours list.