President's Blog: Heads up 17

I very rarely sleep well, in fact I can’t remember the last time I slept through a night. Last night was no exception as I struggled to process the Radio interview on Radio NZ and the harrowing recounting of sexual assaults suffered by 3 Volunteer Women Firefighters at the hands of male Volunteer Firefighters in separate incidents, and the clumsy reply by our CEO. 

The stories of these courageous women revealed a sea of desperation, inaction, cover ups and just downright disgusting behaviour within some Volunteer Brigades and by some individuals including those they went to for help.

As with every crisis, there are opportunities.

Professional career firefighters were not part of those shocking and harrowing events. But, as Professional Career Firefighters we can use this as an opportunity to raise awareness, to cement our good and appropriate behaviours towards each other, to treat each other with respect and dignity. Just as we would keep our home families safe from predator, abusive behaviour, we should be keeping our work families safe also.   If we see any inappropriate language or behaviour against anyone due to their gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation we need to step up and protect the person being victimised. 

One of my concerns with FENZ leadership is the view and the statements around “our culture” needing to change.

Not all of our culture needs to change, we have an extremely strong safety culture in FENZ, we have a very strong standards culture in FENZ, we have a very strong service culture in FENZ, we have a very strong culture of sacrifice in FENZ. By not singling out specific parts of this culture and treating everyone the same, the CEO denigrates the vast majority of Firefighters, Volunteer and Professional Career. 

These sexual attacks and acts of aggression did not occur because of a culture.  These were individuals who felt they had the right to abuse, demean and assault women. 

The way others attempted to cover it up, bully and coerce these women into not complaining or leaving their volunteer service could well be a culture not just in those particular volunteer brigades, but throughout the leadership of the organisation including anyone who received those complaints and did nothing to hold the offenders to account.

I feel Rhys Jones missed an opportunity to put some very clinical and direct statements specifically calling out behaviours that are abusive, assaulting and in some cases illegal.  As I listen to these women’s stories it is clear to me that it is the “handling” of these allegations, the systems and processes to deal with such deeply disrespectful, offensive and in some cases violent and illegal conduct has only deepened the hurt, inflamed it in some cases.  These women talk about delays, poor communication, a boy’s club closing in on the victims and a general lack of action across many layers of the organisation, to me this is the culture that needs to be addressed.  

Despite numerous attempts to discredit the NZPFU in this amalgamation we have held our ground, and on this issue we will stand tall.  I am not saying that we don’t have room to improve as there is still an element of that “smoko table banter” and “appliance chat”, sexist jokes and language, not malicious in nature by any means, but disrespectful and ultimately unhelpful.   This has improved immeasurably in my time as a fire fighter, creating a healthier environment for us all, but it must continue to improve.  Because, what we know about sexual harassment and violence is that it does not exist in a vacuum, it surfaces in environments where sexist views are normalised, disrespectful behaviour and language goes unchallenged.  Perhaps now is the right time to talk about how we can continue to improve in this area, we owe this to the women in our stations and in our lives. 

The NZPFU has been proactive in training our representatives in leadership skills and piloting a “Crew Conversations” programme in five stations around the country.  This programme enables crews to air the issues they experience within their crew and on station,  and to agree within their crews acceptable behaviours and how to raise unacceptable behaviours.  We are now lobbying to have FENZ roll that programme out to all professional career stations.   

To our women members or anyone suffering from unacceptable behaviours please know your Union will not tolerate any insulting or assaulting behaviour towards you or anyone else. You are our family and we will listen to you, we will support you and we will fight for you. You can approach any one of us for support, Secretary Wattie Watson is also always available and our women’s network WFENZ is an avenue for advocacy also.  We extend that offer of support to those in FENZ that are not our members including these volunteer firefighters who have come forward If there are complaints to be made that are not being heard.

I know that many of you will have felt as I did listening to those stories; a mixture of sadness, anger, embarrassment, disappointment and perhaps some defensiveness -  as this is not your experience in this organisation, this is not how your crew mates and colleagues behave.  Let’s make this dark moment for the organisation the one where look within but ultimately stand tall, together.

And please, if you see something, say something!

As always, stay safe

Ian Wright

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