Management bullying, hostile media are taking their toll on firefighters, survey finds

Workplace morale among Victoria's firefighters is at an all-time low.

About a third of Victoria's firefighters have experienced bullying in the workplace and more than 95% believe that negative media coverage of their campaigns for new enterprise bargaining agreements had profoundly damaged workplace morale and led to "public aggression" and a "reluctance to disclose their occupation".

These figures come from a report on Victoria's fire services released by the United Firefighters Union (UFU) on October 4. The report was based on a survey conducted by Newcastle University’s Centre of Full Employment and Equity of firefighters employed by the Country Fire Authority (CFA) and the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB).

The survey was commissioned by the UFU after the 2015 Fire Services Review found workplace morale at an all-time low and likened relations between senior management and staff to “trench warfare”.

The Victorian government also commissioned the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (VEOHRC) to undertake an equity and diversity review of the fire services.

However, the UFU believes the VEOHRC's report was "fatally flawed" because it "relied upon a survey that did not contain any security measures and as a result was able to be completed by anyone (regardless of whether they had any link with the CFA or MFB), anywhere and as many times as they liked".

The release of the VEOHRC report was blocked by a court order sought by the UFU.

The Herald Sun has published what it termed "horror stories" said to be contained in the report, claiming the UFU was trying to hide information about "bullying, threats and  sexism" in the fire services.

Yet the Newcastle University report commissioned by the UFU includes statistics on a range of issues, including bullying, discrimination and sexual harassment.

Almost 32% of respondents to the Newcastle University survey said they had experienced bullying. Of these, 38.1% cited senior managers/executives as the primary perpetrators, 19.2% cited immediate supervisors and 17.1% cited "volunteers", referring to volunteer CFA firefighters, many of whom are hostile to career firefighters.

The survey found that firefighters have been greatly affected by the hostile media coverage of their campaigns for new enterprise agreements. More than 95% of respondents agreed with the statement: "The recent media coverage of the enterprise agreement has had a profoundly damaging effect on morale".

Media coverage portrays firefighters, most of whom are men, as highly sexist. But this picture seems exaggerated.

Of the women firefighters who answered the survey, 87.9% agreed with the statement that "current women firefighters are well respected among career firefighters".

Most firefighters are in favour of greater gender diversity "if it can be attained without compromising rigorous recruitment standards".

A quarter of female respondents said they had experienced sex discrimination and 12.5% said they had been discriminated against because of pregnancy.

"Non-operational staff" (office workers) reported higher levels of bullying, discrimination and sexual harassment then career firefighters.

The UFU has discussed the survey results with management, leading to some actions to improve workplace culture, including changes to recruitment processes to encourage greater diversity.