Firefighters say Fire and Emergency NZ hasn't fixed culture of bullying, sexual misconduct and botched investigations despite review

A 'boys club' culture is still rampant at the organisation, firefighters say, enabling poor behaviour from co-workers and protecting those in powerful positions.
A 'boys club' culture is still rampant at the organisation, firefighters say, enabling poor behaviour from co-workers and protecting those in powerful positions. Photo credit: Newshub.

Warning: This article discusses suicide and sexual assault.

Three years on from an eye-opening review of the culture at Fire and Emergency (FENZ), a group of firefighters say behaviour hasn't improved and complaints of sexual assault, harassment and bullying are still being mishandled.

Newshub spoke to staff from around the country who had experienced or witnessed misconduct by colleagues and allege FENZ mishandled their complaints, dragged them out for years or simply brushed them under the carpet.

They told their stories on the condition of anonymity due to fears over potential backlash.

A 'boys club' culture is still rampant at the organisation, they say, enabling poor behaviour from co-workers and protecting those in powerful positions; and they argue FENZ is more worried about keeping up its reputation than looking after victims.

Newshub was told bullying and harassment remains rife and recent measures to address it - such as the establishment of a Code of Behaviour, a Behavioural Conduct Office (BCO) and an external complaints body - have failed.

They say in many ways things are worse now than they were before.

FENZ vowed to implement major reforms in the wake of the 2019 Shaw report, a damning review of the organisation's policies, procedures and practices to address bullying and harassment that raised myriad issues and resulted in 33 recommendations.

The organisation's deputy CEO acknowledges that while FENZ hasn't always done right by its staff in the past, it's expected that every complaint should now be "taken seriously and addressed in a fair and timely way".

But staff say that isn't happening. Bullying, harassment and other serious misconduct remains commonplace, they say, and complaints continue to be mishandled or go unresolved years later.

'It changed the fabric of my brain'

Bridget* has been involved with FENZ for many years, but the last few have been the toughest of her career.

The difficulties began when she started in a senior role, which drew some unwanted attention from her colleagues. As well as alleging sexual assault and harassment, Bridget says she was regularly bullied and undermined to the point she began to fantasise about ending her life.

"That's not me at all, but I got to that low," she told Newshub.

Bridget laid an official complaint with FENZ, but says the process that followed was a sham as the person initially tasked with looking into her allegation was a friend of one of the colleagues she was complaining about.

A new investigation was eventually carried out after that was pointed out, but that too was a disappointment.

"None of my witnesses could be gotten hold of, conveniently. And all of them said to me 'they didn't contact us'," she said.

"Then I got the result of the investigation, which basically pointed to me as some kind of bad person… that's when my reputation suffered drastically."

Newshub was told a poor behavioural culture and failings within the complaints process are something of an open secret among FENZ staff.
Newshub was told a poor behavioural culture and failings within the complaints process are something of an open secret among FENZ staff. Photo credit: Newshub.

Despite FENZ's new Behaviour and Conduct Office (BCO) getting involved, Bridget claims the organisation failed to update her for a year - at which point her complaint had been deemed historical and they told her they wouldn't be looking into it further.

In the midst of all this, one of the colleagues she accused received a promotion.

Bridget's mental health declined during this time, but she found some solace in learning there were other FENZ staff in the same boat. She keeps in contact with many of them, and they offer each other support.

Finding others going through the same thing gave Bridget "the will to live again", but she's still plagued by what happened to her. She says working at FENZ amidst her ordeal is "not nice".

"I can detach myself from what happened before, but in reality, it has changed the very fabric of my brain. It changed who I am, particularly with what the organisation did afterwards," she said.

"I would never, ever encourage anybody to become a volunteer with FENZ, because - and I know this sounds really awful - but basically, if you're a sexual predator, then you know you can get away with it."

'I've had to fight at every turn'

Newshub was told a poor behavioural culture and failings within the complaints process are something of an open secret among FENZ staff.

A number of unflattering news stories have emerged over the past year about the culture at FENZ and investigations the organisation has botched. Most recently, RNZ this week exposed the organisation for retaining a staffer who was accused and later convicted of child sex abuse.

Bridget knows of five other firefighters like her whose experiences at FENZ contributed to them becoming suicidal, and multiple firefighters said they spend much of their free time providing advice and support to other alleged victims of misconduct.

Online support groups and forums have also been set up where staff swap stories, post memes and crack jokes about FENZ's complaints record. Exchanges in these forums seen by Newshub show frustrations among staff are widespread.

One post calls the BCO "a complete waste of time where they pass you around in circles then ask you to be nice and have a chat with the person hoping that it all goes away".

"Oh dear, not you too," another person replies. "I've tried really hard to find someone who has had an OK experience. Not a single person, complainant or accused could be found."

One firefighter says she knows of five others like her whose experiences at FENZ contributed to them becoming suicidal.
One firefighter says she knows of five others like her whose experiences at FENZ contributed to them becoming suicidal. Photo credit: Newshub.

Other FENZ employees Newshub spoke to echoed this sentiment.

One firefighter, Sarah, has taken her complaint to the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA), the Public Service Commissioner (PSC) and the Internal Affairs Minister after FENZ and its board badly mishandled its investigation into her allegations of sexual assault, harassment, and bullying by a senior colleague.

Sarah made her initial complaint about the colleague in October 2016 but is still searching for answers more than five years on. She tells Newshub her push for justice is like a full-time unpaid job.

Sarah says while the DIA and PSC both engaged in some kind of process, the processes were murky and didn't allow her to present her case and the evidence.

Another FENZ staffer, Fleur*, came forward with an allegation of sexual misconduct of her own against a colleague more than two years ago.

But when she told her officer about what she'd been through, she was immediately placed on leave from her brigade - a move firefighters told Newshub is a common tactic employed by FENZ.

Fleur hasn't been able to go back since. Like it did for Bridget, the process has dragged on and on - and despite an independent investigation being launched and an official complaint being lodged, there is still no resolution in sight.

"It's been exhausting," she said.

"[My complaint is] still in the process of transcripts and reports being written and things. So it's just been just quite tiring, I guess, because I feel like I've had to fight at every turn for fairness rather than it being offered, unfortunately."

Fleur was a firefighter for more than a decade, and says over that time she experienced and witnessed misconduct "in every area", but particularly in the realm of sexual assault and harassment.

She believes FENZ are resistant to taking strong action on misconduct because so many staff members would be implicated that it would create too much disruption.

"I do kind of understand that, but unfortunately it's becoming a bigger and bigger task for them [to not take strong action over complaints]. And I think hopefully for us, it will just become unsustainable. They've managed to do it for a long time but people are getting quite fed up now."

Fleur says until March 2020, when the BCO was brought in, it "basically wasn't possible" to make a complaint as any allegations would go straight  through to the people responsible for the behaviour in the first place.

Fleur and other complainants were initially optimistic about the BCO, but since its inception it's proven to be "more interested in ironing out public image than in actually reaching a resolution for the victims," she says.

"You just feel very silenced and not very cared for."

Firefighter Christina* alleges she was routinely the victim of bullying, unwanted behaviour and sexism in her brigade, which only worsened when she called the perpetrators out on their behaviour.

But much like Bridget and Fleur, when she complained about her treatment to FENZ, things became even worse.

"It's been horrific, it's caused me distress; physical issues, emotional issues. It's really horrible and has affected everything."

Christina says the BCO reports back to the managers at FENZ, who then make their decisions - so the BCO isn't independent either, just an intermediary between management and victims.

Her complaint has now been deemed historical, but was never resolved.

Christina says it's not like everyone who works for FENZ is a bad egg, but there's still "plenty of really bad behaviour happening and it's not getting dealt with".

"My problem could be solved overnight if someone would have the courage to do their job properly, to call it out and just say, 'stop this behaviour or you're done'. But no one will do that."

'Boys club' putting staff at risk

Multiple firefighters attribute the lack of action to a rampant 'boys club' culture that seeks to protect those in power.

Christina says people are encouraged by FENZ to come forward with allegations, but when they do are not supported and instead become a "massive target".

"As much as the people up the top in the offices might think, 'call these guys out, it'll be great', the ones in all these brigades around New Zealand are very much still in the old boys club - and it's the old boys club supervising the old boys club, so not a lot gets done."

Bridget says most of those at the top of the organisation are ex-military, so "they look after each other and we as complainants become an issue to be gotten rid of."

Former volunteer firefighter Rob*, who worked in two brigades before leaving the organisation, says FENZ is a terrible environment for women.

He revealed one of the brigades he was part of was jokingly referred to as a swinger's group due to rampant adultery and harassment.

At this brigade, four females joined, then very promptly left due to what Rob suspects was the poor behaviour they experienced. He says a male colleague repeatedly called a new female firefighter 'Luscious' instead of her name.

On another occasion, a female staffer transferred to Rob's brigade after accusing a senior colleague in her former brigade of sexual harassment. Rather than being sensitive to the circumstances of her transfer, however, Rob's colleagues openly plotted how to get her to sleep with them.

"She joins and I hear the guy asking 'what she's like?', saying 'you'll get her', 'you'll tap that' - things like that.

"I was just thinking 'this environment is never going to change'. Young, attractive females will find working for FENZ very hard."

The Shaw report

The allegations of serious misconduct and failed investigations fly in the face of FENZ's public stance on bullying and harassment, which it states on its website "have no place" at the organisation.

Since January 2019, when FENZ released the Shaw report - an independent review of its policies, practices and procedures to deal with misconduct - they say a "line in the sand" had been drawn and it was now committed to looking after staff.

Led by retired Judge Coral Shaw, that report showed bullying and harassment was rife at all levels and across all regions; that staff had been discriminated against because of their race, gender and sexuality; and that staff had been threatened with violence.

A voluntary survey included in the report found 45 percent of staff had reported witnessing or experiencing bullying or harassment, with 69 percent saying the perpetrator was likely to be in a role senior to the victim.

It also made 33 recommendations about how FENZ could improve its culture, including the adoption of a "zero-tolerance approach" to bullying and harassment, addressing the barriers to reporting bad behaviour, and implementing a system of capturing and recording all disputes.

The establishment of a Code of Behaviour and a BCO were also recommended, as was an overhaul of FENZ's complaints process.

After the Shaw report's release in January 2019, FENZ accepted all 33 recommendations and committed to change. But the firefighters Newshub spoke to say standards generally haven't improved and in some ways have declined further.

"I think actually it [the Shaw report] in some way made things worse - not in terms of behaviour, but in terms of being able to get help," Fleur said.

"They had to figure out a way of making themselves look like they were doing things, so what you see are things like the BCO, which was put in place after the Shaw report, which in theory sounds great.

"But in practice, they really just take your complaint and throw it in the bin - not literally, but that's basically how it feels. [The BCO is] kind of there as a bit of a PR thing, so they look like they're being really proactive."

Christina agrees that while FENZ pays a lot of lip service to the Shaw report, it doesn't actually take much action.

"They came up with a Code of Behaviour, which is great. It lists all these 'above the line' and 'below the line' behaviours and guidelines that we all can apply to - fantastic," she said.

"But people go against them, you call them out, and nothing gets done. So what's the point in having a Code of Behaviour if we're not going to hold people accountable to it?"

'We want to do right by our people'

FENZ did not agree to Newshub's request for an interview on the issues raised by the firefighters.

However in a statement, deputy chief executive Raewyn Bleakley told Newshub the organisation is committed to "building a respectful and positive workplace culture".

"Bullying, harassment or any unwanted behaviour is never acceptable," she said.

"We continue to make that very clear to our people - we want to do right by them. We acknowledge and regret this hasn't always been the case in the past. We expect every complaint of such behaviour to be taken seriously and addressed in a fair and timely way.

"Everyone at Fire and Emergency should feel safe, welcome and included."

Bleakley said FENZ was unable to comment on the specific allegations made by staff without further information. Newshub was unable to provide more information as staff had spoken on the condition of anonymity due to fear of retaliation.

Bleakley says the establishment of the BCO in 2021 was a significant milestone in creating a more positive workplace at FENZ.

"The Behaviour and Conduct Office is a self-contained team, with a wide range of experience and skills in the complaints, investigation and resolution space. They are responsible for ensuring all issues are dealt with in a fair, timely and transparent way."

Anyone who comes forward to the BCO to raise concerns or a complaint is made aware of how to access support, Bleakley says, such as external professional psychological support, employee assistance and counselling, and internal support options and networks.

"The Behaviour and Conduct Office also coordinates external investigations into unwanted interpersonal behaviour using suitably qualified external investigators. Our people are also able to complain to independent bodies."

Bleakley says FENZ complaints that go through to the BCO are not managed by its human resources team.

*Names have been changed.

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