22 August 2002 | Robin Parker
The London Fire Brigade is appealing to suppliers to help end a long-standing barrier to recruiting Sikhs.
It says the design of breathing apparatus face masks means they cannot be used by anyone with a lot of facial hair, as it stops an effective seal.
That means practising Sikhs have been effectively barred from becoming firefighters because their religion does not allow them to cut their beards.
Terry Brewer, head of procurement at the London Fire Brigade, said the fire service promotes equal opportunities, but currently employs no orthodox Sikhs as firefighters and few in other positions.
"We want to make our apparatus suppliers meet our equal opportunities objectives," he said. "The fire service has missed a big trick in maximising purchasing power and getting manufacturers to provide us with what we want."
Suppliers have said it was too difficult to customise equipment in this way and that there was little demand for it. A spokesman for Dräger, a manufacturer of breathing apparatus, said it had found "no viable way" around the problem.
Brewer's team is meeting the firm to promote the benefits of appealing to all the community.
The move follows the authority establishing a stand-alone purchasing department last year, and the publication of a new procurement strategy.
The three-year strategy commits the procurement department to develop an equal opportunities policy to help firms from London's diverse communities bid for work.
The brigade aims to take a lead in meeting a government target set three years ago to recruit 7 per cent of uniformed fire officers from ethnic minorities by 2009.
Indarjit Singh, director of the Network of Sikh Organisations and editor of the Sikh Messenger, said UK suppliers had much to learn from their Indian counterparts.
"Sikh firefighters in India have no problem getting breathing equipment that works, but it has been a big problem here," he said. "Suppliers need to understand the needs of the UK's minorities."
But Brewer said the fire fighting equipment used by the Indian brigades did not meet the UK's Health and Safety Executive standards.
"We've trawled the world and nobody seems to have solved this problem," he said.
London has also joined about 20 brigades for a protective clothing contract, to be advertised this month.