Women firefighters owed a duty of care

The findings of a review of sexual harassment in the ACT fire service, which the ACT government commissioned and then refused to release, are finally in the public domain following reports in The Canberra Times in recent days. Like other accounts of women and other minorities being bullied in predominantly masculine workplaces, the review makes for discomforting reading.

One of the two cases investigated by consultant and former Australian Education Union official Clive Haggar involved a female firefighter who discovered a miniature camera recording device in the toilet of a southside fire station. The woman went to the police but withdrew her complaint soon after, perhaps because she was aware of the repercussions this might have for her on the job. Instead of sacking the individual after an investigation, however, the service dithered for seven months before allowing him to resign – apparently leading to an eventual Comcare claim. Mr Haggar found that case was an outlier, and considered unacceptable by most firefighters, but not all. Some accepted their colleague's defence that the toilet camera was a "practical joke gone wrong" and were prepared to provide references for him.

Complaints by another female firefighter about the presence of pornographic DVDs, magazines and other material in a fire station were ignored until the woman took the matter to supervisors. Their response was to tell her to throw away any material she found and to just accept the fact that "boys will boys". Most disquieting of all, the review found that a small core of firefighters continue to deny that such behaviour is unacceptable – even after "respect, equity and diversity training". Indeed, the review noted that they continued to bring questionable material to the station. "There is no doubt that some firefighters were prepared to push back against the message that was being delivered and in some cases their behaviour was unacceptable – deliberately provocative and even childish,” Mr Haggar said in his review.

Emergency Services Minister Simon Corbell held off publicising the review's findings, arguing that its release could lead to the two complainants being identified – something both women, keen to continue their careers in the fire service, wished to avoid. But some people will be wondering if the real reason for his reluctance was a desire not to draw attention to the botched handling of the hidden-camera incident – and indications that some in the service continue to hold attitudes that the rest of society deems unacceptable.

Just last month, Mr Corbell announced that the government was allocating $160,000 to attract women to the emergency services in order to "build a workforce that better reflects the community it serves". Somehow the minister thought it acceptable to encourage women to join ACT Fire and Rescue even as he refused to fully disclose documented evidence of the sorts of issues confronting its workplace. But that would have been to risk the ire of the United Firefighters Union ACT branch, which maintains there is no culture of sexism or harassment in the fire service.

The union and Emergency Services commissioner Dominic Lane are adamant that the two cases investigated by Mr Haggar should be considered isolated incidents and nothing more. As Mr Lane has noted with some regret, it may be that women will now be discouraged from joining the fire service. If so, the inadequate response of fire service management to the hidden-camera incident may be as much to blame as the appalling incident itself or the attitude and behaviour of a small minority of male firefighters.

Now that the unsavoury details of these cases are public knowledge, many Canberrans will be wondering whether the ACT fire service's management team has learnt from them. Does it now have adequate measures in place to deal promptly and effectively with egregious cases of bullying or sexual harassment? Has it sent a strong and clear message to all employees that such behaviour will not be tolerated? Failure to do so would be to run the risk of betraying the trust of not only the women who choose to make firefighting their career but the public who expect their fire service to protect its members as well as the community.