Mangawhai’s beleagured volunteer fire brigade has hit the headlines recently – for all the wrong reasons.
Allegations of threats, bullying and verbal abuse to subordinates has seen local senior fire officer Mike McEnaney demoted in rank.
The NZ Fire Service investigation into the complaints about Mr McEnaney found the station under his control was severely dysfunctional and needed a change of leadership.
A career firefighter and senior fire investigator, Mr McEnaney took over the head role at the Mangawhai station following the retirement of Maurie Doughty in early 2014.
Since then disgruntled volunteer firefighters say at least 11 complaints or requests for help sent to NZ Fire Service management about their treatment by Mr McEnaney alerting them to issues went largely ignored.
Resignations and walkouts have plagued the Mangawhai service with several long-serving officers stepping back from their duties in protest at their treatment.
In one incident, officer McEnaney was witnessed and recorded threatening a subordinate.
But other claims of bullying against him were unproven or unsubstantiated due to lack of evidence.
The NZ Fire Service workplace bullying policy describes bullying as "unwanted and unwarranted behaviour that a person finds offensive, intimidating and humiliating and is repeated so as to have a detrimental effect upon a person's dignity, safety and well being".
Wellington employment law barrister Karen Radich, who conducted the investigation, said that although Mr McEnaney’s behavior was inappropriate, it did not amount to what was considered workplace bullying.
Ms Radich was employed by the NZFS so Mangawhai members are questioning its impartiality.
Among the official complainents Ross Parkes and Jim Shewan were interviewed by an appointee from the NZFD Human Resources department but not by Ms Radich and although their claims were ‘not substantiated’ they have been unable to access the report which they are now endeavouring to procure via the official information Act. Chris Corin wrote a letter of support and voicing his own concerns but was never personally interviewed.
Allan Halse of Culturesafe NZ, an organisation set up to address workplace bullying, said there is, at present, no legal definition of the term ‘bullying’ in the context of this instance.
However regarding the investigation by Ms Radich, Halse says this is not an employment issue but a health and safety issue so the investigation findings are meaningless.
The NZFS is in breach of its own policy on bullying and on that basis he says “responsibility for not bringing this problem to a close rests squarely with NZFS CEO Paul Baxter who is negligent under the Health and Safety Employment Act.”
Some brigade members want Mr McEnaney dismissed and not demoted.
Questions about community safety are also now being asked. Low morale, low staff numbers, and lack of qualified appliance operators could mean emergency response times and safety is compromised.
At present the Mangawhai Brigade cannot turn out during week days due to no qualified personnel being within 1.5 hours commute.
The two members who hold the qualifications to operate the machinery and manage an event both work full-time in Auckland and of the five fire fighters available, three are normally around Mangawhai but none are pump operators and only one has the HT licence necessary to drive the primary appliance.
“Such dysfunction has the potential to put public safety at risk and also to jeopardise the brigade's long-term sustainability," says Whangarei Fire Service area manager Wipari Henwood.
An online petition by disgruntled volunteers outlines their concerns for the brigade, stating that at least 15 volunteer firefighters have left the service since 2012 due to ongoing issues
– yet it was only after several members laid official complaints that any action was undertaken by the Fire Service.
According to long-time Mangawhai Fire Brigade supporter and fundraiser, Annie Kitchener, the official investigation into bullying and intimidation by volunteer firefighters was basically a whitewash.
“This so called ‘independent’ investigation was organised and funded by the NZ Fire Service,” says Annie. “We know that evidence wasn’t followed through from those who had separately made their allegations. We must now put an end to this inoperable, negative situation. Unless action happens immediately our local fire brigade will totally combust. It has gone on far too long. Too many people, good people, have been affected.”
An impromptu meeting about the current Mangawhai situation was held at the boating club last Thursday and chaired by Allan Halse of Culturesafe NZ, attended by a number of volunteer firefighters and concerned members of the community.
TV3 was also in attendance filming for a documentary about the nationwide woes of the fire service.
A local petition with over 1000 signatures is likely to be presented shortly to Northland MP Winston Peters in an effort to stem the tide discontent once and for all.
Mangawhai is not the only station with burning issues, which some say points at a general nationwide unease within the service.
Tensions at Beachlands Volunteer Fire Brigade in East Auckland have been brewing since 2007.
A soap opera of bullying, lies, threats, disputes and complaints has poisened the brigade.
Despite this, the NZFS has reportedly refused to remove the chief.
A volunteer firefighter from a North Canterbury brigade who is battling suspension, claims a culture of bullying and intimidation permeates the New Zealand Fire Service.
Brent Cairns expected to be discharged permanently after he allegedly brought the brigade into disrepute by complaining about management.
facebook.com; Bring Back Our Brigade
“Such dysfunction has the potential to put public safety at risk and also to jeopardise the brigade's long-term sustainability."
- Wipari Henwood, Whangarei Fire Service area manager.
FIRED UP: Disgruntled volunteers and community members air grievences at a meeting last week with Allan Halse of Culturesafe NZ.
Mike McEnaney. (PHOTO/RadioLive)
By Rob Pooley