Firefighter doubts bullying will be stopped at Fire and Emergency

10:14 pm on 24 January 2019

The findings of an independent review into Fire and Emergency won't change the culture, a retired firefighter has said, but the chief executive says there is now a clear path towards change.

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Photo: sanchairat/123RF

An independent review commissioned by Fire and Emergency and conducted by retired Judge Coral Shaw found harassment and bullying was endemic in the organisation.

The review made 33 recommendations, including formalising their intentions to cut out all bullying and harassment, and adopting a new code of behaviour.

The report also recommended better training for people in charge of resolving complaints, and developing a set of procedures and practices for managing complaints of bullying and harassment.

The recommendations have all been accepted by Fire and Emergency New Zealand chief executive Rhys Jones.

Kaiapoi Fire Brigade's former deputy chief Ian Thomas said he retired in 2015 because he was sick of the bullying and its demoralising effect on him and others.

Changing policies and new recommendations wouldn't make a difference, he said.

"They did that when I was there - they put out policies, the person would read them and say, 'what a load of rubbish' and that was it, and you're still butting your head against a brick wall.

"The reason why they're having this review is because they're trying to change the culture, but they need to change the staff in there as well."

At the time, Mr Thomas took his complaints as far the then-Minister of Internal Affairs, Peter Dunne.

His experience had showed him it was hard to get complaints heard because the bullying "is starting from the top."

But Fire and Emergency NZ chief Rhys Jones told RNZ that this time the change would be meaningful, because the report had given clear directions for the actions needed.

"The report's not so much identifying what the problems are, but having enough knowledge of the problems to identify where's the way out of this.

"We have accepted that [bullying and harrassment] is happening, and as an organisation we need to accept that we need to be different.

Fire and Emergency chief executive Rhys Jones

Fire and Emergency NZ chief executive Rhys Jones. Photo: RNZ / Meriana Johnsen

"First of all our people need to understand that the support networks are there. That the reporting line is open, and people are confident that if they raise their hands with an issue it's going to be dealt with appropriately and quickly, and they are going to be supported."

All managers would be thoroughly trained to deal with conflict, and clear processes would be set up to deal with bullying and harrassment.

Everyone in the organisation would be given clear boundaries about what was and was not acceptable behaviour. Then, if people were not "up to standard, there are ways of overcoming that," including making them leave the organisation, he said.

The report had set goals it said were achieveable within three years, he said, but it was likely thorough, institutional change could still be ongoing in 10 or 15 years.

"Too often people have stepped over the line of a tough environment to an inappropriate one, a harsh one, one where there is harrassment and bullying.

"That's what's driven this activity, that's what we've got to stamp out."

The review was a long time coming for United Fire Brigade's Association chief executive Bill Butzbach, who was pleased action was finally being taken.

His organisation represents more than 12,000 firefighters, and about 80 percent of those are volunteers.

"In my 43 long years with this organisation nothing surprises me about this, because these behaviours have been there all through that time.

"But this is the first time that these behaviours have been called into question, and we welcome this day because we've got a foundation to build upon."

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