A former career Recruit has been quoted in the media stating he experienced there was a culture of bullying and sexual harassment at the National Training Centre. That Recruit suffered burns to his hands during live-fire training on the course and he has made a series of claims of ill-treatment by the Trainers.
The allegations publicised yesterday painted a grim picture of a system of training that would not be acceptable or condoned. But that picture has been refuted by other Recruits on the same course.
Some Recruits from that course were so incensed by the allegations they felt compelled to come forward to the NZPFU to set the record straight. Not one of them agreed with the allegations that the trainers were bullies or put the Recruits under unnecessary training or pressure. All said the training included experiences that challenged them but they were told from the start some exercises would show them their own limits to prepare them for work as a professional career firefighter. They also said one Recruit said he would claim he was bullied if he failed the course.
Any injury or incident must be properly investigated and all remedial actions taken to prevent or mitigate a repeat. This is a dangerous profession and injuries will occur but there is no room for complacency. There is always room to learn and improve and the number of burn injuries must be addressed.
The NZPFU has seen the Report of the Level 2 investigation into the Recruit’s burns but not the documents reviewed or considered in the report. The investigation found:
- The Recruit had been issued with the correctly sized (3X) L2 gloves, and all PPE including the gloves were checked by the relevant Trainers, but the safety inspection did not identify the gloves the Recruit was wearing were wrongly sized.
- The Recruit was acutely aware that the (XL) L2 gloves he was wearing had not been issued for his use within the fire cell and he had failed to notify the Trainer at the time of the inspection that the gloves were not the original ones issued. It is still not clear how the Recruit sourced the gloves he was wearing but the investigation found the gloves were most probably from the box of training gloves kept specifically for non-structural fire training.
- While procedures were carried out correctly, trainers were unable to provide or identify some specific written policies.
- The actions taken by FENZ staff regarding medical assessment, transport and support of the Recruit was consistent with policy but there was little knowledge of the written policy.
The Level 2 Investigation report made 9 Findings and made 7 recommendations for corrective actions. The findings included human error and organisational factors including a disconnect between NTC and the management of injuries with the relevant medical centre and with IMU. The NZPFU has checked with the NTC and all recommendations have been actioned, with the consultation to further develop the relationship with the local medical centre ongoing to ensure the medical practitioners understand the demands of the training courses. The gap between the recording of injuries at NTC and the IMU has been remedied. Recruits are now part of the SMS system and an email is automatically sent to IMU. This change is intended to ensure seamless management and support of all injuries and illnesses. New written policies and procedures, including written safety briefings and secure storage and recorded allocation of gloves have been implemented. The gloves are now permanently marked/tagged for easy identification of those not suitable for structural fire training. There is now secure storage of gloves and recording of all gloves issued and returned.
The media quoted the Recruit as saying he complained of the heat in the container to the Trainer “but he kept on pushing me to continue” and “it got to the point where I couldn’t even hold the hose. I was in mortal danger… my whole body was starting to shut down.” He said he continued with the exercise for fear he would fail the course. The FENZ investigation found the Trainer was unaware of the Recruit’s level of discomfort as the Recruit failed to tell him. The Trainer said if he had known he would have removed the Recruit from the cell as he had done with other recruits in the past. The Live Fire Training exercise is not a pass/fail assessment.
Deeply concerned by these allegations I contacted some of the Recruits on the same course, others have initiated contacted with me or other NZPFU representatives to give their views of the training:
- They all denied they had been required to continue in live fire where it was too hot or they were unable to continue
- All of those Recruits said they had it drummed into them from the first day that they would be trained for each scenario and would be challenged and have their limits tested in a controlled training environment.
- All of the Recruits said they were repeatedly informed of the dangers of incorrect PPE including sizing. They said their PPE including gloves were checked before hot fire training.
- All Recruits spoken to said they felt they were trained and properly supervised for the live fire burns. No one said they felt they were in mortal danger or required to continue if it was too hot or they could not sustain the heat.
- One Recruit reported he and another Recruit were once told to back out of one live fire burn by the Trainer who was concerned it might be getting too hot. The Recruit said communication was clear, he could hear but also they had hand signals telling them to leave.
- One Recruit said he had chosen to back out of the heat during one live fire incident when he felt it was too hot. He said he was not criticised for doing so and it was part of their training not to put themselves or their crew in danger. He said it was an important lesson in preparation for attending structure fires once qualified.
- Two Recruits that suffered redness and burns on their hands after the hot fire training were told to immerse their hands in water baths that were present at every hot fire exercise. They were then taken to the medical centre and taken back to the medical centre for dressings every day. Within a few days that Recruit was deemed fit for work and continued with the course. They said the Recruit in the media chose not to strictly adhere to the treatment instructions.
- All Recruits said the Trainers worked hard to get everyone through the course. They said the Trainers were willing to give additional training or assistance upon request. If a Recruit was not completing or failing an aspect of the course the Trainers provided remedial training. The Trainees said they were expected to study and practice and those that did felt they managed the course better.
I also asked the Recruits if they witnessed or were subject to bullying and sexual harassment.
- Not one of the Recruits I have spoken to or had contact with said they experienced bullying or harassment by Trainers, or that there was a culture of bullying or belittling. Some Recruits were angry with the reports as it did not represent their experience and others felt misused by the reports.
- Three women Recruits from that course that deny the Trainers were abusive, bullying or made sexually explicit comments. One said “flat out no!”.
- The woman Recruit touched by a lit cigarette was unhappy that it had been used as a basis for complaint and vehemently denied it was a situation of bullying, harassment or intimidation. She said it had nothing to do with her gender. She explained the incident as antics when a group of the Recruits were drinking and socialising. Trainers were not present. She said the Recruit quoted in the media had misused that incident previously as a claim of bullying in his employment matter.
- Two Recruits said a Recruit on their course had said if he failed the course he would claim he was bullied by the Trainers.
I have also spoken to Trainers who were saddened and some were angry or disillusioned about the media reports. All were passionate about training firefighters to prepare them for their career as professional firefighters. All stated that if there were lessons to be learned, or changes to be made they would embrace those changes. The Trainers were adamant the story published yesterday was not a true reflection of the events regarding this Recruit, or training at NTC.
Training is integral to safe systems of work. Training is undertaken in a controlled environment and has to be relevant, realistic and effective in preparing firefighters for response. On the incident ground firefighters will be challenged but with robust training will be apply to problem-solve safely and effectively. Their training and experience will save their lives and the lives of the crew. Their training will be integral to the outcome for the public and the community.
The workload for the Trainers based at NTC and regionally is high and they are supported by other firefighters to assist on specific courses. When training Recruits the Trainers make themselves readily available for additional support and remedial training despite the long hours and physically taxing work.
Trainers are at high risk of carcinogen exposure. They put their health and safety on the line with repeated live fire burns. Acutely aware of the risks, the NTC trainers were recently integral in trialling the new particulate-blocking hoods now being trialled nationally.
As with the profession of firefighting, training methods, practices and equipment has evolved over time and best practice continues to evolve. The NZPFU representatives and Trainers continue to work with the FENZ to ensure safe systems of training are applied across the country and are standardised to ensure live fire training is undertaken when necessary but as safely as practicable.