The Victim summaries contained in this document are from volunteers and staff who have bravely contacted the author to express their distressing and desperate plights. What is clear in every case is that the New South Wales Rural Fire Service (RFS) knowingly showed an arrogant disregard of its duty of care as an employer. It, the RFS, fosters a culture where reports of Bullying, Harassment, Discrimination and Sexual Misconduct were ignored, suppressed or dismissed. Complaints and grievances are systematically lost and investigations delayed and incompetently mishandled to the point complainants simply give up and leave the service. Retaliation is a common occurrence for victims of the RFS. It is common for a complainant to be the subject of a new counter complaint especially when the original complaint is about a Captain or other senior member of their Brigade.
It is a totally inadequate and unprofessional system that allows a complaint to be handled by those who are friends with the defendant.
The New South Wales Rural Fire Service is arguably the world largest volunteer fire fighting service. For years Volunteers have been fighting a disciplinary and complaints handling system that is biased 100% against the volunteer. Although the RFS has an extensive list of Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) for complaints handling of Bullying, Harassment and Discrimination (BHD) the RFS is negligent in almost every case in its duty of care for the volunteer and in many cases staff.
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The need for an independent reporting process is obvious given the issues raised in this article. Anyone who has been involved for any length of time would have witnessed one or more of the examples listed. Clearly there are three distinct workplace relationships operating within the RFS. Staff – Staff, Staff – Volunteer and Volunteer – Volunteer and each have their own idiosyncrasies. Firstly a (predominantly junior) Staff member would be reluctant to report any issue internally given they rely on an RFS pay cheque and knowing promotional opportunities are likely to be affected. The next group (Staff – Volunteer) is the area that gets a little cloudy. Starting out as a support mechanism to co-ordinate the efforts of the volunteers the RFS bureaucracy has evolved to become, in the main, an organisational behemoth aloof from its’ volunteer base and uses a subtle form of intimidation to ensure the Volunteer remains under control (so to speak). There have been too many occasions where a Volunteer reporting a Staff member goes nowhere. The final group (Volunteer – Volunteer) is where things get really interesting. The reported seventy thousand volunteers have seventy thousand personalities. Breaking it down to fundamentals the vast majority of volunteers join to help their communities and just want to get on with the job whereas a minority join to help themselves to achieve some form of power over others. Unfortunately it is this minority who seem to have the ability to influence the culture of a Brigade. They need to be weeded out but, under the current reporting process, this is difficult to achieve.
It goes without saying, of course, that the ability to recognise vindictive reports needs to be factored in to protect all members from false and scurrilous accusations.
The author points out that whilst Staff have access to the Public Service Union the Volunteer has no advocate. The author also correctly states that the RFSA does not become involved in these issues. The RFSA, whilst supporting members in many ways, was established with a specific “non-industrial” charter so must operate within that charter. Interestingly, however, the current New Member Induction states that ” as a member of the RFS you are a Public Official. As such, and now that the Volunteer is classed as a ‘worker’ of a PCBU, (RFS) why is access to the PSU not available?
In closing the Service has lost too many valuable members (both Volunteer and Staff) because of the system. Permanent change (by way of an independent reporting process) needs to occur now.
On the issue of Clayton Utz and the potential conflict of interest.
On 14 May 2021, David Shoebridge directed the following questions to the Minister for Police and Emergency Services.
See the questions and answers below:
5634 – Police and Emergency Services – CLAYTON UTZ COMPENSATION PAYMENTS – NSW RURAL FIRE SERVICES (RFS)
Shoebridge, David to the Minister for Finance and Small Business representing the Minister for Police and Emergency Services
(1) How much funding has the New South Wales Rural Fire Services (RFS) paid to Clayton Utz in each of the following years:
(f) 2021 to date?
(2) Is Clayton Utz on a panel or other arrangement with RFS under which it provides legal services?
(a) If so, what is it?
(3) Was there an open tender process under which Clayton Utz applied to provide legal services to the RFS?
(a) If so, when was it conducted?
(4) Was there an open tender process for the appointment of a law firm to investigate claims of serious misconduct within the New South Wales RFS?
(5) What steps have been taken to manage any potential conflict of interest at Clayton Utz due to the existing relationship?
(6) Regarding the appointment of Clayton Utz to investigate claims of serious misconduct within the New South Wales RFS:
(a) Why has the scope of the review been limited to those complaints made to the RFS within the past three years?
(b) What was the reason for excluding ex-RFS members from the process?
I am advised:
(2-4) Clayton Utz is an approved provider on the NSW Government Legal Services Panel. Further information can be found at:
(5) Clayton Utz has the appropriate structures in place to manage any actual or perceived conflict of interest that may arise, through rigorous confidentiality arrangements and information barriers.
(6) Clayton Utz has been engaged to undertake an independent review of previous claims of serious conduct matters, not to investigate claims of serious misconduct.
(a) A three-year period was considered reasonable, particularly in light of the difficulties that can arise when reviewing matters of an historical nature – such as accessing local records, and relying on individual recollections.
(b) The process does not exclude former NSW Rural Fire Service members.
Question asked on 14 May 2021 (session 57-1) and published in Questions & Answers Paper No. 498
Answer received on 1 June 2021 and published in Questions & Answers Paper No. 510