7 Sep 2020

Recruit firefighter details burns, bullying during training

10:20 am on 7 September 2020

A former professional firefighter recruit received serious burns and blistering to both hands during a live fire training exercise because the trainer failed to identify that his gloves were too small.

Burns sustained by a recruit at FENZ National Training Centre in February 2019

Burns sustained by a recruit at FENZ National Training Centre in February 2019 Photo: supplied

The accident occurred in February last year at Fire and Emergency New Zealand' (FENZ) National Training Centre in Rotorua.

An official investigation into the accident found 56 other burn injuries have been sustained in a five-year period, partly due to a lack of a clear, written safety briefing to be delivered ahead of the highly risky live fire exercise.

This contrasts with FENZ figures released to Nine to Noon under the Official Information Act showing just 29 recruits have sustained burn injuries during training in the last five years - which FENZ says were mostly minor and treated with basic first aid.

The former recruit said in his intake of 24, half sustained burns, three of them serious, but none were reported for fear of not passing the course.

"If you miss a half a day or a day of this intensive course you put yourself behind the eight-ball and you're made aware of that from the start of the course."

He said the accident happened in a live container fire exercise, where temperatures could get up to 600 to 700 degrees Celsius.

"We were doing the exercise, this was the second time I'd had done it. We went in and I could feel the heat in the container was really really high. I mentioned it on a number of a occasions to the trainer that was with me, but he kept on pushing me to continue. The more I continued, the more I felt the heat, to the point it was like I was trying to walk through a pane of very sharp glass - just unbearable pain.

"It got the point where I couldn't even hold the hose. I was in mortal danger ... my whole body was starting to shut down."

The recruit said he kept going because he was afraid he would be kicked off the course.

"I didn't have a choice. If I'd put that hose down I would have failed the course there and then."

The accident report found the trainer failed to identify both that the recruit was wearing the wrong type of gloves and that they were two sizes too small.

The report said the injured recruit initially was left to go to the first aid room alone to dress his wounds, and that many of the staff at the National Training Centre were unaware of the correct emergency medical support policy.

The National Training Centre did not report the accident to National Headquarters, nor did it have a written safety briefing for the highly risky live fire exercise.

The report said the lack of an appropriately trained safety, health and wellbeing representative for the operational staff at the National Training Centre "led to basic and fundamental safety requirements, initiatives, training and reporting lines to be inadequate".

The former recruit said he returned to the course with his burnt hands and was told he had to complete several assessments in order to pass. He said he asked a trainer if he ought to try to get his medical certificate altered to declare him fit to do so.

"I said to him are you guys telling me to go and change my medical certificate? He looked at me and shrugged his shoulders. He turned around and said to me 'You need to do whatever you need to do to get through this course'."

FENZ said each year 100 career recruits and 200 volunteer recruits attended training courses at the National Training Centre.

It said and it took the health, safety and wellbeing of all its people seriously.

In response to the accident, FENZ said it had implemented a uniform dressing chart that showed personnel how to correctly fit PPE correctly and safely, and qualified trainers carry out glove sizing to ensure that recruits have correctly fitting gloves.

"Live fire training provides the recruits with the opportunity to experience real fire behaviour and then learn to safety apply the techniques they are taught in real - but controlled - situations. This takes place in custom built structures and is closely monitored and administered by Fire and Emergency's specialist instructors," FENZ said.

Culture of bullying

The former recruit also spoke of a culture of bullying and sexual harassment from trainers to trainees at the National Training Centre.

"There was a lot of sexual stuff. There were very limited female recruits on the course. There was one in particular. You'd be climbing up ladders and ... there'd be comments made about sexual positions and stuff like that."

He also described an incident where recruit stubbed out a cigarette on a female recruit's leg.

"But such is the environment that you keep stum about everything. You say nothing. You don't put a single foot wrong, you don't say anything to upset the training centre staff"

The man said trainers had derogatory nicknames for all the recruits but no one would speak out because they were fearful of not making it through the course.

After his burns healed, he wanted to return to complete the firefighter training but the training centre made it too difficult for him, he said.

After nearly a year on full pay and attempts to get him to resign he was dismissed for getting his medical clearance changed, he said.

The man said the culture within the National Training Centre was a contributor to the wider culture within FENZ.

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