2 Sep 2020

Calls for full inquiry into fire service complaints after high-level allegations come to light

8:29 am on 2 September 2020

A former volunteer firefighter who says she was assaulted while in the organisation is calling for a full inquiry into all complaints of sexual harassment in the service.

New Zealand fire crews' equipment at Richmond Fire Station.

(File photo). Photo: RNZ / Tracy Neal

The call comes after the chief executive of the United Fire Brigades' Association (UFBA), was stood down while two allegations of bullying and sexual harassment are investigated.

But those who say they have experienced harassment say it is not enough - and an immediate inquiry should look into Fire and Emergency's (FENZ) structure and what they say is a failure to properly investigate complaints of sexual harassment.

Nikyta was 21 when she says she was sexually assaulted by a fire chief in a small town station.

Five years later, a person has been been stood down pending investigation.

Now news that a different man, the head of her former union, is the subject of two harassment claims has left her feeling rattled.

She suspects FENZ and the UFBA know of other cases of sexual assault and wants the government to conduct a full, independent and immediate investigation into both.

"I want a complete audit on every single email. I want a complete audit on every account, every breath they took. If they were to look at all the emails they would realise that it's all being brushed under the carpet."

Barrister Kristy McDonald will investigate two complaints against Bill Butzbach, the chief executive of the United Fire Brigades' Association. Butzbach has been stood down pending the investigation.

The now acting chief executive Richie Smith declined an interview.

When RNZ asked him whether any further complaints might be included in the scope of the McDonald investigation, he said: "The inquiry is now in the hands of Ms McDonald, however we will certainly be passing any relevant new information to her."

He said the terms of reference were yet to be decided.

Wattie Watson, the national secretary of the New Zealand Professional Firefighters Union, said the McDonald investigation did not remove the need for a full inquiry into all complaints of sexual harassment in the service.

"FENZ still needs to investigate these allegations if they've failed to do so. If they've done so in the past and they haven't been dealt with appropriately then it needs to address that now."

On top of that, she wants to know why women feel their complaints have fallen on deaf ears for so long.

"We need an investigation to find out why FENZ or the fire service - if they're historic complaints - why they've failed - why they've failed these women, why they've failed the service and why they have failed everyone else that works for volunteers. Because everyone else is very upset and very concerned that these allegations have come forward."

Fire and Emergency chief executive Rhys Jones would not be interviewed but in a statement, said that he has been determined to stop bullying and harassment of any kind since he stepped into the role.

He referred to an independent review that he commissioned retired Judge Coral Shaw to carry out to address bullying and harassment, which he said "showed the clear need for change to remove unwanted behaviour".

He accepted all 33 recommendations of the review in 2019.

"My clear focus has been on stopping bad behaviour occurring in the first place so that more people are not damaged by such abhorrent behaviour," Jones said.

Nikyta said the Coral Shaw report did not go far enough.

"The Coral Shaw report - I'm really getting sick of FENZ and the UFBA referring to it. It is no longer relevant, we should be at better standards."

Meanwhile, Nikyta said the UFBA has refused to help her with her case against Fire and Emergency, because she was no longer a volunteer.

She reached out to the union last month to ask for help with costs related to her complaint, after she first spoke publicly about it.

In an email, seen by RNZ, a UFBA advocate told Nikyta that the union "is mandated ... to provide support and advocacy services to its members. Unfortunately we do not have the ability to extend these services to non-members."

It told her FENZ's disputes resolutions process and complaints process was being redeveloped, and could not direct her to a specific person.

She said the desire to be a firefighter had been taken from her.

"I would still happily be a volunteer firefighter, to this day, without a second question in my mind, I would be there for my community, if it wasn't for me being sexually assaulted."

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