29 Apr 2022

Review announced into workplace culture at Fire and Emergency

12:37 pm on 29 April 2022

Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ) is facing an independent review following years of bullying and sexual harassment complaints.

Generic Stills

Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

The Public Service Commission announced this morning it had appointed Belinda Clark QSO to lead a review to assess what changes had been made since FENZ was found by an independent judge to have a culture of bullying and harassment.

In 2018, Judge Coral Shaw reviewed the organisation and, as well as finding a culture of bullying and harassment, reported there were unacceptable levels of sexism, racism and homophobia.

Judge Shaw described an environment in which people who bullied or harassed went unchallenged.

"The review heard of examples where bullying behaviour has been overlooked, downplayed or excused by FENZ (Fire and Emergency New Zealand) because the perpetrator is perceived to be a "hero firefighter," an important manager, a long-service volunteer with deep connections into the local community, or a union member."

She also found the majority of people who went through the organisation's complaints process found it a negative experience.

Deputy Public Service Commissioner Helene Quilter QSO said today that the new review would assess whether recommendations from the Shaw report had been implemented and whether things at FENZ had changed.

Fire and Emergency board chair Rebecca Keoghan, MNZM, requested the Public Service Commission for a review.

"I look forward to the findings of this independent review, and the reviewer's recommendations on how we can continue to improve things for our people."

In the years since the Shaw report, a number of firefighters have accused Fire and Emergency of failing to properly deal with their complaints of sexual assault, harassment or bullying.

Earlier this year, RNZ revealed a volunteer firefighter who was convicted of sexually abusing his son was allowed to remain on his brigade. He was only discharged after he was sentenced.

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.

Sexual violence survivor advocate Louise Nicholas said then that there should "absolutely" have been improvement in Fire and Emergency's complaints process that many years after the judge's review.

Fire and Emergency chief executive Rhys Jones

Rhys Jones Photo: RNZ / Meriana Johnsen

At that time, chief executive Rhys Jones insisted 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."

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