The Country Fire Authority instructed its own investigators to drop or avoid some complaints of serious sexual assaults, harassment and bullying and in one case forced staff in its integrity unit to sign non-disclosure contracts or face disciplinary action.
Two former members of the CFA’s integrity unit, who declined to speak on the record over fears of retribution, claim a probe into the serious sexual assault of a CFA volunteer was given the codename “Operation Angus” to further conceal the case and “protect the CFA brand”.
A defaced fire danger rating sign which was displayed at a Pakenham CFA station in 2019.
“Complainants were often paid out to avoid a fuss, but perpetrators of some really bad behaviour were rarely, if ever, made accountable,” a former investigator said.
The Age can also reveal that at least three members of the CFA integrity unit have taken stress leave or resigned in the past two years because they were either subjected to bullying or were unable to cope with the number of complaints.
The new claims raise further concerns about an entrenched culture of misogyny and discrimination in the CFA, which has led to renewed calls for the release of a report by the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission.
The report was suppressed in 2018 after a legal challenge by the powerful United Firefighters Union, but uncovered “everyday sexism” and a “hyper-masculine culture” in the state’s fire services. It warned that workers could be exposed to further harm under an industrial agreement approved by the Andrews government.
The review was commissioned by then emergency services minister Jane Garrett, who resigned from cabinet in 2016 after the government pushed through a contentious deal that gave the UFU even more power over the CFA.
Ms Garrett, now an upper house MP, has made her first public comments about the bitter industrial relations dispute that cruelled her political career.
“The VEOHRC report was not only about having women’s voices heard, it was also about providing a road map for change. It’s devastating for everyone involved that it was never allowed to see the light of day,” Ms Garrett said.
She said that “women’s voices must be heard”.
A CFA spokeswoman did not deny that investigators had been asked to sign confidentiality agreements, but said the suggestion the organisation covered up any investigation into serious sexual misconduct was “simply not true”.
”Any investigation involving serious allegations requires a high level of confidentiality to protect the privacy of the individuals involved,” she said. “Due to the nature of the allegations it is inappropriate for CFA to comment as it would be a matter for police.”
The spokeswoman said the VEOHRC report dates back some years and the organisation was “focused on improving its culture moving forward and this is the highest priority”.
The Age has been inundated with examples of harassment and bullying over the past week since publishing a story last week on the CFA’s repeated failure to reform its dysfunctional workplace culture.
The Age has also obtained a picture of a defaced CFA fire danger rating sign which was openly displayed at the Pakenham fire station in 2019. The sign read “Touching Danger Rating” and was used to rate levels of inappropriate touching amongst CFA staff.
CFA management and the UFU were made aware of the sign, but no disciplinary action was taken against the full-time firefighter believed to be responsible. A spokeswoman said the CFA does not condone offensive material and action is taken where it is reported.
Many members say they have been psychologically damaged by the abuse they experienced at the CFA and are considering legal action.
An 18-year-old female employee was left suicidal after a relentless bullying campaign by three senior colleagues at the CFA’s south-eastern headquarters in Dandenong South.
The young woman, who began full-time employment as a regional support officer in November 2016, was warned against leaving a reception desk unless she could find a replacement.
The CFA faces allegations that it is unwilling or unable to deal with systemic bullying, discrimination and harassment.Credit:Jessica Shapiro
“I am embarrassed to say that I wet myself on several occasions as I could not find anyone to relieve me … I often remained in reception from 8.15am until after 2pm without a break,” the woman said in a complaint to the CFA integrity unit.
A colleague would also point her fingers like a gun as the 18-year-old sat at reception, making a shooting sound as she walked past.
In September 2018, the woman made a complaint to the CFA integrity unit, which took almost a year to investigate the claim before finding that her colleagues had no case to answer.
“What they have done and how they have made me feel is terrifying; this can happen to anyone else. I have heard this has been going on for four years, it should not have been allowed,” the woman said in a statement.
The woman told The Age she continues to deal with the psychological damage caused by the CFA’s failure to deal with her complaint.
Jeanie Dean was appointed by the CFA in 2018 to implement new workplace practices to protect young CFA volunteers.
She resigned less than a year later after becoming disillusioned by the organisation’s resistance to change, but was also subjected to bullying in her role and made a formal complaint.
In a statement to The Age, which the CFA declined to endorse, Ms Dean said she frequently witnessed “systemic deficits and failures by CFA to adequately respond to allegations and complaints of misconduct.”
“I observed a problematic, and at times, unsafe workplace culture from leadership to the frontline. I also experienced disrespectful workplace behaviours and had an unsatisfactory experience in making a complaint of my own,” she said.
She urged the CFA board and executive to take action.
“I implore the new leadership at CFA to engage with members, including children and young people, and listen to them, believe them, learn from their experiences and act without delay,” Ms Dean said.
The CFA has agreed to meet with Ms Dean to discuss issues raised in her statement.
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