Firefighters hopeful culture of bullying and harassment can finally be sorted

6:30 am on 9 December 2022
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A volunteer firefighter says a shake-up within Fire and Emergency is long overdue. Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

Firefighters are optimistic an independent review will start to tackle some of the organisation's cultural problems.

A report by the Public Service Commission showed Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ) has not done enough to fix its toxic culture, despite a similar report in 2018.

The report, by Judge Coral Shaw, described an environment in which bullying and harassment went unchallenged.

In April, independent consultant Belinda Clark was appointed to lead a review assessing whether changes had been made since FENZ's culture of bullying and harassment first came to light in the Shaw report.

A longtime volunteer firefighter in Paekakariki, Judith Stanley, said very little had changed in its wake.

The findings of the review by Clark were published this week.

"That highlighted the same problems," Stanley said.

"They've obviously not taken [the first report] seriously enough to make those changes from executive level to brigade level, shaking it down so there are cultural changes."

With FENZ now facing that shake-up, Stanley said past wrongdoings needed to be addressed.

"I would like to see some retrospective actions taken as well, to resolve all outstanding complaints, and if necessary, instigate some disciplinary measures," she said.

"It's not enough to say it's going to be alright."

Complaints process a weak spot

Voluntary service deputy chief fire officer Tony Sutorius said the complaints process was a huge weak spot - slow, difficult and often failing to lead to satisfactory outcomes for complainants.

"The real problem at the moment is that, given how bad the track record has been, a lot of people who have things to complain about just don't trust the system," he said.

The new complaints panel, to be set up in the interim while an independent conduct authority was put in place, would hopefully address that.

Another change recommended by the review was to force voluntary fire chiefs to reapply for their jobs every five years.

At the moment, Sutorius said, the roles were appointed and then could be held for life.

"It's not really a good formula for bringing a change culture, and a modern, more inclusive culture," he said.

Labour MP Jan Tinetti

Jan Tinetti Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Internal Affairs Minister Jan Tinetti said change was already underway, with two members of the FENZ board resigning this week and being replaced.

"I am replacing the two members with Belinda Clark who was the reviewer, because she has done an absolute deep dive into this and knows the issues inside out, and Ruth Dyson [former Labour minister] will be the new deputy chair."

Tinetti said change had been a long time coming, and while a culture shift would take time, she expected work to begin immediately.

She would be working closely with the chair of the board to make sure it was happening.

"This will be a converstation [...] that we will have in every single one of our meetings," she said.

"We have to see changes instantly."

Meanwhile, Sutorius hoped that with two new board members having a specific mandate to improve responses to complaints, change would be swift.

He said after years of mishandled complaints and wrongdoings swept under the rug, FENZ needed to restore trust in its systems.

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