UK's 'most influential' black firefighter calls for others to 'champion equality' as he retires after nearly 30 years of service

An “influential" black firefighter from London who experienced racial abuse at work today calls for others  to “step up and champion equality” as he retires after nearly 30 years. 

Michael Nicholas MBE, who this week retired from London Fire Brigade, campaigned for equal rights in the workforce after experiencing “widespread” racism during his career.

Hailing Mr Nicholas as the “UK’s most influential black firefighter” in a statement following his retirement, LFB said that he “helped achieve major changes in the diversity of the Brigade’s workforce”.

The former firefighter and watch manager, 55, has spoken to the Standard about diversity in the fire brigade and how things have changed since he joined.

Mr Nicholas and London Fire Commissioner Dany Cotton (LFB)

Mr Nicholas said that he believes a career in the fire brigade is a “fantastic one”, and one he believes “should be open to anyone regardless of their race, sexuality or gender”. But he said things have not always been as inclusive as this.

The former firefighter, from Newham, said he was working as a painter and decorator, then a postman, before he was encouraged by friends to join the emergency force.

When Mr Nicholas joined, he said conditions were very different to how they are now. Just three per cent of London’s firefighters came from black or minority background in 1990, compared to 14 per cent now.

He said: “It was very difficult for me when I arrived. When I joined, the average age was about 22 and I joined as a grown man, with a child.

“Because of the culture at the time, the underrepresented members of us, we were different, and the fire service didn’t do change or difference very well.

“It was a very difficult environment in terms of humour. Some of the verbal abuse that came my way was because of the colour of my skin.”

He added: “It was widespread. When black people did join – they did not stay. As someone coming in, we were expected to tough it out.”

Growing up in east London, and around many cultures, Mr Nicholas said he had previously only experienced racist comments when he was playing football – not at work.

(Jeremy Selwyn)

“You work four days, then have four days off, and you’d spend them worrying about what was going to happen when you got back,” he said.

Through talking to others at work, Mr Nicholas said he began to have meetings with other firefighters as a way of supporting one another.

And if word of a firefighter being mistreated was heard, Mr Nicholas said that he and others would wait for them to finish outside the station as a sign of solidarity and support.

Mr Nicholas then rose to be the secretary of the Fire Brigade Union’s black and ethnic minority members, striving to help others.

He said: “Black people and women said ‘We’re not going to put up with this anymore, we deserve a career as much as anyone else’.”

Movements in the time he was working for LFB, such as the murder of Stephen Lawrence and the election of a Labour government in 1997, and work with other people including himself helped to change the diversity of the workforce.

But Mr Nicholas said more could still be done.

He said: “I was part of a small group of BAME firefighters who helped forge a path for others to think of firefighting as a career for them.

“It has taken a lot of commitment and sacrifice. I hope the things I have fought for were worth fighting for.

“I’ve done it my way as the song goes, but now it is time for others to step up and champion equality. We’ve come a long way but the struggle is not over, we need more diversity in the fire services.”

Mr Nicholas’s work for equal treatment carried beyond London, and was felt in other parts of the UK, helping scores of people.

He said: “I feel absolutely humbled and proud that any impact I’ve had.”

As well as helping to recruit more people from diverse backgrounds into the fire service, Mr Nicholas said he also cherishes the memories of working in the force for so many years.

He said: “Every singly job you go to where you know you have helped a member of the public, it makes you feel proud because it’s what you want to do.

“We [firefighters] aren’t special people, we just go to special jobs.”

Mr Nicholas was awarded an MBE in the 2017 Queen’s Birthday Honours List for services to the fire brigade and to the black and ethnic minority community in London – something which he said was one of the special moments of his career.

He said: “Receiving my MBE was a great occasion and a very special moment especially for my mother, wife and children.

“One of my fondest memories of the day was my daughter Grace who became quite emotional and when we asked her why said ‘that she would have been prouder of me sooner’ had she realised my accomplishments.

“I hope that my award says to people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds that they can have long and fulfilling careers in the fire service.”
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