Firefighters say new 'independent' complaints scheme won't fix FENZ culture of bullying, sexual misconduct and botched investigations

FENZ and its service provider the Independent Complaint and Review Authority insist the scheme is impartial and transparent.
FENZ and its service provider the Independent Complaint and Review Authority insist the scheme is impartial and transparent. Photo credit: Newshub.

A group of firefighters whose complaints of serious misconduct have dragged on for years say a new 'independent' disputes process won't do anything to help victims of sexual assault, bullying and harassment at Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ).

The firefighters told Newshub poor workplace behaviour and botched investigations are still commonplace at FENZ and are now calling on their employer's new complaints scheme to be kiboshed in favour of a permanent and independent disputes agency.

The scheme, announced by FENZ in December 2021, is run by an external dispute resolution and conflict management service that vows to provide a "transparent process to resolve complaints and situations of conflict" for those in emergency service roles.

But a group of firefighters is unhappy with the arrangement, saying while it looks like a step forward on paper, the scheme is unlikely to put a dent in what they describe as a rampant 'boys club' culture at FENZ that protects those in power.

They say the scheme is not truly independent because FENZ pays for it and retains control over who runs it, and believe it will be ineffective because victims still have to go through FENZ's internal system - which can take years - before they're able to access it.

FENZ and service provider the Independent Complaint and Review Authority (ICRA) insist the scheme is unbiased and transparent, and will enable staff to appeal actions and decisions.

But firefighters say they want a new body established, similar to the Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA), to guarantee impartiality and keep FENZ in line.

The new ICRA scheme

The new disputes resolution scheme came into effect on December 10, 2021.

Legislation required FENZ to establish one, but the need for it was also underpinned by the 2019 Shaw report, a damning review of the organisation's policies, procedures and practices to address bullying and harassment.

Led by retired Judge Coral Shaw, the 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.

It also found FENZ needed to systematically address the barriers to reporting bullying and harassment; and that many staff wanted complaints to be dealt with by a process that is independent of FENZ, or at least its rank and command structure.

Firefighters say the scheme is not truly independent because FENZ pays for it.
Firefighters say the scheme is not truly independent because FENZ pays for it. Photo credit: Newshub.

The ICRA, which FENZ last year selected to run the scheme, heralded it in a joint press release as a new "independent and transparent process" that would ensure "all parties are treated fairly and are heard when issues arise".

FENZ CEO Rhys Jones added his assurance that the scheme would resolve "any matters of concern".

"Participants in the scheme can be expected to be treated with respect and dignity in all their dealings and interactions throughout the process. They can expect prompt and efficient service and responses to inquiries and requests for assistance," the press release reads.

"Above all, they can expect independent, fair and accessible dispute resolution processes to enable them to resolve any conflict, complaints and/or disputes with Fire and Emergency or Fire and Emergency personnel."

'It's a farce'

But firefighters who allege their complaints of serious misconduct have been mishandled say they don't believe the new process will make things any better for staff in similar circumstances.

Part of the issue is those who want to access the scheme must have attempted to resolve their dispute directly with FENZ first, with complaints about "unwanted interpersonal behaviour" needing to go through the organisation's Behaviour and Conduct Office (BCO).

Many of the firefighters Newshub spoke to were unhappy with how their complaints were handled by the BCO, and say their complaints have been dragged out by FENZ for years.

They believe under the new arrangement, it could be several years before complaints even get to the ICRA for consideration.

Firefighter Christina* - who says the complaints process has been awful since she alleged she was routinely the victim of bullying, unwanted behaviour and sexism in her brigade - believes not being able to go directly to the ICRA will make things harder for complainants.

"The process will be far too long. It still has to go through FENZ first, so as a victim, you'll still have to go through this horrendous process which doesn't protect you at all," she says.

"Most people won't last that process, they won't still be actively turning out for FENZ [by the time the complaint is handed over to the ICRA]."

Firefighters believe the complaints process will remain a drawn-out, frustrating process.
Firefighters believe the complaints process will remain a drawn-out, frustrating process. Photo credit: Getty Images

Christina likens the scheme to a PR exercise, saying it makes FENZ look like it's doing the right thing when in reality, the complaints process will remain a drawn-out, frustrating process.

Bridget*, a fellow firefighter who says her treatment by FENZ after complaining she'd been bullied and harassed was so bad she became suicidal, agrees that it's all about public perception for her employer.

She argues the scheme isn't truly independent as FENZ remains in control - it doesn't have to act on the ICRA's recommendations, and can offer the contract to another disputes resolution service provider if it gets unfavourable results.

"It's another thing where they tick the box and go 'oh, look, we're doing it, we're getting someone independent'," Bridget says.

"It's a farce, it's not independent. [FENZ is] paying their bills, they're paying for the organisation [ICRA] to give them the result they want.

"The people who are getting the gravy train from FENZ in this situation, they're not going to turn around and say, 'you're the problem, you need to change at the top end' because then they're not going to get their gravy train any more."

A third firefighter, Fleur*, who was told to take leave after making an allegation of sexual misconduct more than two years ago and never returned, also has doubts about the scheme's impartiality.

"They use the word 'independent' quite freely… but unfortunately, it's really not independent. I like the idea of it, but I suppose I haven't really had a chance to see anything positive [since the Shaw report was released], so I'm a bit sceptical."

Firefighters have for years been lobbying FENZ and the Internal Affairs Minister for an independent body to handle complaints.

They want an agency established that has no connection to FENZ - similar to what the police are answerable to with the IPCA, a taxpayer-funded watchdog that handles complaints about police misconduct and neglect of duty.

But they want some changes if such an organisation ever comes to pass - most notably the ability to enforce remedial action. While the police generally accept the IPCA's recommendations, they do have the power to refuse to take actions if they disagree.

'Completely unbiased'

ICRA director John Green told Newshub he understands the concerns of firefighters, but believes they may be borne out of the failure of previous complaints processes rather than the nature of their scheme.

"That's not to say that their perception is unreasonable or unrealistic, it's a question of being properly informed."

Green reassures them that ICRA has been contracted to provide private disputes resolution services for decades across "every sector and every part of the community you can think of", and wouldn't risk their reputation to favour FENZ.

"FENZ are tiny by comparison to whatever else we do," Green said.

"There's no way in the world we would engage in anything other than services that were completely independent and unbiased, and we're certainly not going to walk away from 30 years' work over the sake of some silly FENZ dispute."

While many of the firefighters take issue with FENZ paying ICRA's bills, Green says the employer almost always pays for a disputes resolution service regardless of whether it's in the private or public sector, and it doesn't indicate bias.

"Do I know anybody at FENZ? No. Yes, we're paid by FENZ to administer the scheme - there's no secret about that, somebody has to pay," he told Newshub.

"I think there's a perception of a David and Goliath approach [but] generally speaking, I think it's fair to say that the employers are in a better place to meet the cost of that process, and would want to do so.

"If there was any perception that we were not independent based on the fact our costs are met by FENZ, we'd be more than happy to provide exactly the same services to any party outside of the scheme on a commercial user pays basis."

Green points out the actual dispute resolution services themselves - facilitation, mediation and adjudication - are provided by independent practitioners, rather than ICRA employees. He says the ICRA's involvement is predominantly in an administrative capacity.

He invites any FENZ staff concerned about the process to discuss it directly with ICRA representatives.

Green reassures staff that they do have the option to escalate their complaint to ICRA if they feel FENZ are dragging their feet too - they don't have to sit through a protracted internal FENZ process.

"One of the grounds for [staff] not needing to follow through with the in-house scheme is if there is unreasonable delay," he explained.

"What our scheme does for those volunteers is it provides another mechanism - an independent mechanism - that if they're dissatisfied with either the outcome or the time taken for the matter to be resolved, they can access the scheme and they don't have to pay for it."

FENZ response

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 points out the ICRA has more than 30 years' experience designing and implementing dispute resolution services.

She says this includes undertaking independent and impartial reviews of decisions made by Government agencies in the exercise of their statutory powers and duties; and independent and impartial reviews of complaints processes, procedures and outcomes.

"We contracted the ICRA to run our Independent Dispute Resolution service after considerable consultation with other government agencies and our own people. We have contracted ICRA because of their ability to be impartial and independent," she says.

Bleakley also tells Newshub FENZ is committed to "building a respectful and positive workplace culture".

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

"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."