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  • David Toll

Emergency Services continue to permit toxic work culture.

Updated: May 7

Unfortunately, the reportedly high levels of conflict which exist within our emergency services appear to continue within the CFA, despite this issue having been made very public for years now. It is incredibly hard to attract staff in the current environment, let alone in dangerous, arguable underpaid or often volunteer based organisations. Exposing staff to a toxic culture will only drive well intentioned people away from organisations which perform a vital public service. Addressing the difficult issues caused by conflict head on is the only way to stop this unwanted behaviour. Previous suggestions of introducing external panels of people with expertise in conflict management, in order to confront the difficulties of this type of unacceptable behaviour, appear to have been ignored by the current cohort of leaders across agencies. Perhaps its time to review that stance?

CFA apologises to members after report finds culture of discrimination and bullying Bullying and discrimination is still prevalent within the Country Fire Authority (CFA) a new report has found, with staff describing a "toxic culture" and a lack of confidence in the organisation's leadership, despite repeated workplace reviews. The latest review, which was commissioned in September 2021 and conducted by Allen & Clarke Consulting, examined how the CFA could enhance its culture. The review was made public today.

It included data from the most recent staff survey which revealed nearly one quarter of respondents said they had been bullied in the past year. One in 10 staff members said they had experienced violence and aggression, 9 per cent said they had experienced discrimination and 8 per cent sexual harassment. One in five workers said they intended to leave the CFA, with more than half citing a lack of confidence in senior leadership as the reason. "Bullying and harassment is prevalent especially from supervisors ... towards staff," one stakeholder said. "These behaviours have led to the creation of a toxic culture where seemingly the only way to succeed is to emulate those above you." CFA staff reveal 'boy's club' culture within organisation According to the report, 128 mental health injury claims were made by staff between 2017 and 2021. Of those claims, 41 reference work pressure or work-related bulling as the reason for the complaint. "If there was anything I could change in CFA [it's] the straight-out bullying tactics," one stakeholder said. "They isolate you … and withhold resources if you complain." Another described the culture of their brigade as "awful, sexist, misogynistic". "It's a culture of double standards," they said. Several reports commissioned by the CFA since 2016 have found that there was a culture of fear and bullying in the service and made recommendations for change. The latest report found the CFA still lacks diversity because despite progress being made, women only make up 23 per cent of the organisation's volunteer membership. One stakeholder said the service had a "hyper masculine culture". "The CFA is a men's shed with trucks in it," they said. "It's a boy's club." A 2016 report by the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission examined the lack of gender diversity in the fire services but is yet to be released. The report has been suppressed by the Court of Appeal, which found the commission did not have the legal right to review fire agencies. The United Firefighters Union has fought for the report to remain confidential. The report has made 10 recommendations including for the CFA to increase diversity and inclusion in its membership and expand the volunteer base of the CFA. It also recommends the service develop a five-year action plan to improve culture and create an avenue for staff to make anonymous complaints. CFA apologises to members following release of report In a joint statement from CFA chair Greg Wilson, chief executive Natalie MacDonald and chief officer Jason Heffernan, the organisation acknowledged today's report made for "distressing reading". "We are deeply sorry to those current and past members who have experienced unacceptable behaviours at CFA and we are committed to doing better," the statement said. "We will now work with our leaders, members and key partners over the coming weeks and months to develop a five-year action plan in response to the findings." The CFA said it would also accept the 10 recommendations made by the report in full. The CFA is now a volunteer-only organisation after the Andrews government overhauled the state's fire services in 2020 and merged the Metropolitan Fire Brigade with the paid firefighters in the CFA to create Fire Rescue Victoria. The report revealed there was still a "turf war" between the two services, with one stakeholder describing it as an "us versus them mentality". There was a perception among staff that during call-outs where volunteer and paid members come together, there were instances of inequity in treatment. "The differences are blatant," one stakeholder said. "Paid firefighters will come to assist and be given different food, there is a clear difference in the quality of the food provided."

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