Volunteer firefighter made to feel like a 'villain' after laying complaint

1:14 pm on 9 December 2022
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FENZ accepted all of a recent review's recommendations, but said some of them would take time to implement. Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

A volunteer firefighter who has been "on leave" since making a sexual harassment complaint against a senior officer more than two years ago says Fire and Emergency's process punishes those who speak out.

The woman, a 13-year veteran, said her experience was consistent with the findings in this week's independent review, which found Fire and Emergency (FENZ) has continued to fail victims with its unclear, inconsistent and dragged-out process.

"The complaints process was as distressing, if not more distressing, than the incident that led to the complaint in the first place," she told Nine to Noon.

"Complainants are punished by being put on leave. The respondents in cases are allowed to stay in their roles but complainants are punished for coming forward."

As a result of being put on leave, the complainant was often "considered to be the villain", she said.

"You're not there to defend yourself."

She has now been "on leave" for two-and-a-half years.

"I agreed to it because I thought it would be two months max, they'll sort it out."

She supports the report's recommendation for a completely independent body to replace FENZ's Behaviour and Conduct Office, which was set up following a previous review in 2019, which found harassment and bullying were endemic within FENZ.

The internal unit took too long to resolve complaints and was not independent of FENZ's human resources department, she said.

"That's where the process falls down - it's supposed to avoid HR because HR is not there to protect complainants, it's there to protect FENZ.

"They're not interested in me or in getting the right outcome for me - they just want to make sure FENZ comes out of this looking okay. It seems to be about ticking a box."

In her particular case, the investigation was now closed. But she had not yet returned to the brigade because the HR department was insisting she attend a face-to-face "restorative justice" session with the men involved in her complaint.

That was despite the person in charge of the process at the Behaviour and Conduct Office saying that was "not appropriate" in this case.

"HR have said if I don't, then I'll have to resign."

Each brigade was still largely a law unto themselves, with control over their own processes, which she called "scary".

As the report noted, many fire chiefs and other senior leaders had been chosen for the technical firefighting skills, not their people skills, she said.

"They don't necessarily know how to deal with bullying or sexual harm... This can also have safety implications if they're trying to direct people at a fire but are poor communicators or can't direct a team.

"No one in leadership wants to admit anyone else in leadership is wrong because otherwise it all comes down like dominoes because they've all put each in those positions."

FENZ board chair Rebecca Keoghan, who requested the review, said on Thursday it was clear the complaints process overall had not been adequate and there was a need for an independent handling of complaints.

Belinda Clark QSO - who led the review - also said FENZ should should direct complaints to an independent body, recommending a "zero-tolerance" policy when it came to harassment and bullying.

FENZ accepted all of the review's recommendations, but said some of them would take time to implement.

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