28 Feb 2022

Child abuse victim only latest to be failed by Fire and Emergency - advocate

5:58 pm on 28 February 2022

A child who was sexually abused by a volunteer firefighter is only the latest of many to be let down by Fire and Emergency's complaints process, an advocate says.

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Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

The advocate, a volunteer firefighter RNZ has agreed not to name, has supported numerous colleagues to make complaints of being assaulted or harassed.

Although Fire and Emergency had vowed to improve its complaints process following a damning 2018 review, nothing had changed, she said.

"I've looked really, really hard to find somebody with a positive outcome from one of FENZ's (Fire and Emergency New Zealand) complaints processes, and I haven't managed to find a single person," she said.

RNZ revealed this morning that a volunteer firefighter was allowed to remain on his brigade after being convicted of indecently assaulting a child, his son. The victim's mother met with Fire and Emergency, asked for a written apology for her son and was told she would be kept informed of what actions would be taken with the brigade. She heard nothing more until RNZ contacted Fire and Emergency.

The advocate said that lined up with her experiences.

"It's really disappointing to keep hearing stories of things not being resolved well, but it's not surprising to me."

In 2018, an independent review by retired Judge Coral Shaw found Fire and Emergency had a culture of bullying and harassment. She also found the majority of people who went through the organisation's complaints process found it a negative experience. Fire and Emergency said it would make changes.

Fire and Emergency admitted to RNZ it was "regrettable" and "unacceptable" that a brigade kept on a convicted child abuser. It also admitted it had failed to follow up with the victim's family after they complained.

But chief executive Rhys Jones said Fire and Emergency had made improvements since 2018.

"Fire and Emergency is committed to building a respectful and positive workplace culture - bullying, harassment or any unwanted behaviour is never acceptable. We continue to make that very clear to our people. We acknowledge and regret this hasn't always been the case in the past.

"We want anyone - whether it be employees, volunteers, contractors or the public - to come forward if they need to [to] raise issues about people's behaviour in Fire and Emergency.

"A significant improvement is that we now have a permanent Behaviour and Conduct Office. This self-contained team has a wide range of experience and skills in the complaints, investigation and resolution space. The Behaviour and Conduct Office is responsible for ensuring all issues are dealt with in a fair, timely and transparent way."

But it was the Behaviour and Conduct Office that failed to send an apology to the abused child and to keep his mother informed, until RNZ became involved.

The advocate said if there had been change, it was happening at a "glacial" pace.

"There have been lots of changes at national headquarters. There have been policies written, there have been codes of conduct published. But to me as a firefighter on the ground? No, there's no obvious change.

"There's no evidence to show that the processes and the outcomes and the resolutions for people are anywhere near satisfactory, and that's a recurring theme over, you know, the 20 years I've been a volunteer firefighter."

Fire and Emergency said culture change "is not something that happens quickly", but sexual violence survivor advocate Louise Nicholas said there should "absolutely" have been improvement in the complaints process by now.

Instead, she said Fire and Emergency had done "everything wrong" in the child sexual abuse case.

"At what point does the organisation say, 'Okay, these allegations are being brought by police, we need to stand you down until the end of the trial, and then make a decision on the outcome of that trial?' That's how it should work," she said.

The situation was made worse because the complaints process still clearly was not working, she said, and Fire and Emergency should have immediately apologised.

"They've done everything wrong, so absolutely an apology for their actions."

In the years since retired Judge Coral Shaw's report was released, a number of firefighters have accused Fire and Emergency of failing to properly deal with its complaints of sexual assault, harassment or bullying. The professional firefighters' union president has said women felt they were up against a boys' club that stages cover-ups and protects perpetrators.

Between 2015 and June 2020, Fire and Emergency received 24 complaints of sexual harassment. Of those, 21 of the complaints were made about volunteer firefighters, two were made about other employees, and the remaining one was not categorised. No complaints were made about career firefighters, who make up only 13 percent of New Zealand firefighters, with the rest volunteers.

The advocate said volunteer firefighters needed training.

"There's still no widespread conduct and behaviour training for volunteer firefighters."

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