Queensland Fire Services Culture of Shame

It’s being referred to as a “culture of shame” and while it is Australia, its not all that different from what we are seeing in some fire departments here in the US. The Queensland Fire & Emergency Services is reeling following the release of an 80-page report on the status of women in their organization.

The report was commissioned by the Premier of Queensland, Campbell Newman, following a series of antics culminating in male firefighters posting a poll on Facebook rating which of their female colleagues would be best in bed.

Former Public Service Commissioner Margaret Allison was tasked with investigating the incident and the broader issue of the conditions for women in the department. The report was released last Friday. Among the problems identified:

  • Women recruits and firefighters alike are often called an offensive term for 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 (QFES) 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. It is of concern that, in one case, it appears that the confidential details of a recruit’s psychological testing were made available to their 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. 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”.
  • There are pervasive (and untrue) rumours that the women who enter QFES must have been subject to a lesser standard of physical fitness, or permitted other favourable treatment to pass the course.
  • In some cases, it is openly asserted that sexual favours must have been provided in exchange for successful completion of the academy program.
  • [A] tolerance for behaviour that would be completely unacceptable workplace behaviour in other environments, and a failure to recognise the seriousness of particular behaviours.
  • 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 organisation had a very limited understanding of how to respond to this matter
  • Although a number of individuals have tried to “do the right thing” in recent months, the lack of senior leadership and single point accountability from the outset meant that the organisational response was uncoordinated, needlessly protracted and unnecessarily traumatising.
  • The organisation has failed to provide reasonable information and support to the complainants and has exacerbated the stress of the situation for them by not ensuring their safety in the workplace nor acting to resolve the matter within a reasonable time frame.
  • There is little organisational recognition that the behaviours that gave rise to this issue (e.g. creating and sharing offensive material about female colleagues), when considered along with other information, might suggest more pervasive cultural issues that should be addressed.

The report concludes with 30 recommendations broken into 9 categories:

  • Leadership and oversight of implementation
  • Legislation
  • Separate review of other complaints
  • Organisational governance matters
  • Management of harassment and bullying allegations
  • Recruitment and selection
  • Training and development
  • Ethics and conduct
  • Working environment

Shortly after the release of the report, QFES Commissioner Lee Johnson announced his retirement. He was quoted as saying:

  • “Earlier today the Premier released the findings of a report into allegations of inappropriate sexist behaviour within QFES”
  • “Like the Premier I am shocked and appalled at some of the findings.”
  • “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.”

Assistant Police Commissioner Katarina Carroll has been appointed to lead QES in the interim.

Here is a copy of the report: INDEPENDENT-REVIEW-OF-AN-INCIDENT-INVOLVING-QFES

Here is more on the story.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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