Queensland fire service’s culture of shame

December 19, 2014 – 4:17PM

Amy Remeikis

Premier Campbell Newman says a culture of sexual misconduct, sexual harassment, bullying and intimidation is not acceptable in any workplace.

Premier Campbell Newman says a culture of sexual misconduct, sexual harassment, bullying and intimidation is not acceptable in any workplace. Photo: Glenn Hunt

A “quite disturbing picture” has emerged of a “deep seeded” workplace culture that includes sexual harassment and misconduct, bullying and intimidation.  Queensland, this is your fire service.

An independent review of the handling of a complaint made by three female firefighters who were the subject of sexual harassment and misconduct involving “offensive material” and “derogatory and abusive commentary” has painted a frightening picture of the accepted culture within the Queensland Fire and Emergency Service.

There are just 69 permanent Queensland female firefighters in a service of about 2240 permanent personnel. There are no women ranked higher than inspector.

Former Bligh government Public Service Commissioner Margaret Allison, who also served as the Director-General of the Department of Communities under the LNP, found the state’s fire service was unprepared for the inclusion of women in 1995, that “at worst [was] actively and overtly hostile”.

“Further, a number of male officers freely express these negative attitudes in the workplace without apparent concern that they might incur social disapproval or be more formally sanctioned for doing so,” Ms Allison reported.

“Women recruits and firefighters alike are often called an offensive term of female genitalia by instructors, colleagues and more senior officers.  One officer indicated he heard this term on every shift.

“Other Queensland Fire and Emergency Services staff in positions of responsibility, such as Station Officers and academy instructors, have expressed their intention to prevent women firefighters from achieving academically or being promoted.

“It also appears that selection and training related information about recruits is circulated widely before their assignment to a particular station.  This occurs universally with women recruits, but also with male recruits who do not fit the cultural norm.”

In at least one case this included the confidential details of a recruit’s psychological testing being released to a Station Officer “and thereafter became more generally known”.

“All the women firefighters interviewed for this review had experience of being told directly by colleagues and station officers that women were not wanted in the fire service,” the report found.

“In one case, an officer was told on her first day, ‘I don’t want you here.  I don’t want to see you, I don’t want to smell you and I don’t want your girly deodorant in my truck’.”

Rumours followed female firefighters that they were either “subject[ed] to lesser standard of physical fitness” or given favourable treatment to pass the exacting conditions of the entry tests.

“In some cases it is openly asserted that sexual favours must have been provided in exchange for successful completion of the academy program,” Ms Allison reported.

Firefighters who object to ‘jokes’ or behaviour that could be considered as offensive or “even threatening” are told it was “just a joke” and labelled “a wimp or a whinger” and subjected to social exclusion or “even more extreme behaviour”.

“What is evident in this matter, and established through the review, is a tolerance for behaviour that would be completely unacceptable workplace behaviour in other environments and a failure to recognise the seriousness of particular behaviours,” Ms Allison found.

“When one female officer made a complaint to a senior officer about the sexually aggressive behaviour of a male colleague and provided some evidence to support her allegation, the officer’s response was that it probably wouldn’t be considered sexual harassment as there was no touching involved.  Despite the woman indicating she felt unsafe with the colleague she continued to be rostered on with him.”

The response

Premier Campbell Newman likened the report’s findings to the recent Australian Defence Force scandal.

Fire Commissioner Lee Johnson, who was appointed to the role in 2001 and has been part of the service since 1975, was due to retire in July next year.  Mr Newman said that was being fast tracked, with Mr Johnson now on long service leave, effective immediately.  Assistant police commissioner Katarina Carroll will serve as interim Fire Commissioner until the role is officially vacated by Mr Johnson.  Ms Carroll, who Mr Newman said had the “leadership skills, gravitas, and the ability to actually reform the Queensland Fire Service” has been charged with reforming the service’s workplace culture, with the “full support” of the government.

“I didn’t have confidence that the outgoing commissioner understood the gravity of the situation,” Mr Newman said.

“This is not about just a few bad apples, this is about a workplace culture, right through the organisation, that doesn’t understand what the norms of 2014 are.

“We had complaints about harassment and inappropriate use of social media that were made essentially a year ago.  They weren’t acted upon.  They weren’t acted upon appropriately. The women concerned, when they asked for advice, were given the wrong advice.

“The hierarchy of the  fire service did not properly investigate the matter and so essentially you went from late 2013 to September 2014 before any proper, independent investigation was launched by the fire service itself.”

Mr Newman, who said he and the minister responsible for the service, Jack Dempsey, “almost accidentally” became aware of the complaints at the same time and asked Ms Allison to conduct a review of their handling.

In a statement released as the report went public, Mr Johnson said he was “shocked and appalled” at some of the findings and was stepping aside “for a new leader to continue to develop and evolve our organisation”.

“Whilst I believe the vast majority of staff and volunteers always uphold our core values and treat each other with dignity and respect, this report’s findings indicate this is not always the case,” he said.

“I find this personally confronting as Commissioner as such behaviours are alien to me and certainly do not reflect the type of service I have sought to build during my career.”

Mr Newman thanked the women who made the original complaint for their “courage” and “patience” and apologised to them for what they had experienced.  At least one of the women has asked for a transfer, with Ms Allison finding none of the three were given the proper support by the organisation, had been told wrong information, and were forced to answer colleagues’ questions about the issue within the workplace, and in some cases were pressured into dropping the matter.

Ms Allison said she found “systemic” problems in the organisation “that limit its ability to respond appropriately and effectively to these matters, generally”, but added that Queensland was not unique.

“The issues identified in this review have been evident within other Australian jurisdictions and other countries with whom we have a lot in common, such as Canada and the UK,” she said.

“I also note that these issues have been evident in other uniformed cultures with a command control environment such as the Australian Defence Force and its academy.  Both of which were reviewed a couple of years ago by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner.”

The Sex Discrimination Commsioner’s included the establishment of a ‘small gender representative committee’ with an independent chair that would be tasked with developing a plan to “end discriminatory behaviour in the workplace and create greater gender equity across the organisation, including volunteers”.

She further recommended a complete overhaul of how the service deals with bullying and harassment complaints.

These will be considered by Ms Carroll, who will announce what recommendations she will accept in January.

Mr Newman said the government would also provide a detailed response at a later date.

“This is not about positive discrimination or about quotas for women…this is about saying that sexual misconduct, sexual harassment, bullying and intimidation is not on in the workplace,” Mr Newman said.

“It is about that.  End of story.  Period.  We are not launching some campaign to see more women employed in the Queensland fire service, that is up to women across this state, if they want to be employed.  What I have to give them, what the fire service has to give them is a safe, work environment where they have every opportunity to succeed.  And Margaret Allison has identified that as not there at the moment.”

Mr Newman said he expected change to take “three to five years, because that is how deep seeded it is”.

“This is not a problem that has come up over night.  This is something that has been built over the history of the fire service and it is akin to problems with the ADF, it is akin to problems in other fire services.

“These things become the norm, become the customary practice, and some organisations because of their nature don’t move effectively with the times and that is what we have here.”

He said he had asked Crown Law to review the report and some of the incidents that occurred and did not rule out individuals being charged as a result. A separate review into the rural fire service has also been recommended.

But both Ms Allison and Mr Newman paid tribute to the work the state’s firefighters do.

Ms Allison said she was “optimistic” there would be widespread accepted change.

“Quite rightly, firefighting is a very highly regarded career in our community,” Ms Allison said.

“Firefighters undertake some of the most difficult and dangerous work we have ever asked people to do.

“They have a long and proud history of service, but some of the traditions of the past must be let go to embrace future opportunities and ensure the fire service is staffed with the best and most capable men and women.”

Mr Newman said he did not believe a “witch hunt” was necessary but a big change was required to bring the service’s workplace practices into 2014.

“Get ready for change,” Mr Newman said to the service.

“We all respect what you do, we all respect your role, we all respect the bravery you show, but understand that change is coming to the Queensland Fire Service and I am sure that the people of Queensland when they see this report will expect change to occur.”


Source : The Brisbane Times

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