Rebecca Quilliam is senior reporter at the NZME. News Service office in Wellington.

Linesman disciplined for volunteering while on-call

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

A linesman, disciplined for acting as a volunteer firefighter while on-call for his employer, says he was on his way to help a heart attack victim.

Les Wasson, a volunteer firefighter at Kerikeri, says he was on his way to a Fire Service job last December when he was caught speeding in a Top Energy company car.

Company policy dictates workers are not allowed to volunteer during on-call hours, and Top Energy consequently banned him from doing firefighting duties for 12 months.

Mr Wasson complained to the Employment Relations Authority (ERA) about the policy, saying he thought it was illegal and the disciplinary action was not something a fair employer would do.

However, the ERA ruled the company was justified in its stance.

Mr Wasson told APNZ he was considering appealing the decision to the Employment Court and therefore could not comment.

He was able to say that he had been on his way to help a 70-year-old man who was having a heart attack.

According to the ERA's decision, released today, Mr Wasson had been involved in the fire brigade for 18 years, and since 2005 has been the Chief Fire Officer of the Kerikeri station, which has 25 volunteers.

Top Energy launched an investigation when Mr Wasson's speeding came to light, and it concluded he had breached their policy about volunteering for the Fire Service while he was on-call.

The company took disciplinary action and withdrew his "privilege to attend community service during work hours for a period of 12 months", the ERA ruling said.

The company normally allowed other volunteers to attend emergency calls during work hours because staff numbers were bolstered at those times.

Mr Wasson denied being aware of the prohibition to attend community duties while on-call.

But Top Energy concluded he had received the emergency policy on at least two occasions prior to attending the call-out.

ERA member Anna Fitzgibbon said despite being aware of the prohibition, Mr Wasson chose to make himself available to attend the Fire Service call-out while being on the standby roster.

"This was an inherently dangerous situation; a conflict between Mr Wasson's duties for Top Energy and for the Fire Service could have occurred," said Ms Fitzgibbon.

Top Energy chief executive Russell Shaw said during out of office hours it was vital they had staff available to deal with emergency calls.

"Because we have people crashing into power poles, we have live wires coming down and we need someone who's immediately available."

Mr Shaw said during the incident where Mr Wasson was volunteering, he did not miss a job from the company.

In a year's time Mr Wasson would be able to continue to volunteer during work hours when he is needed, Mr Shaw said.

Mr Wasson was represented by the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union during the ERA hearing and a union spokesman said Mr Wasson would not be able to comment on the decision because Top Energy did not allow their staff to speak to the media.

A Fire Service spokeswoman said volunteers were an important part of the organisation.

There were about 8500 volunteers around the country, compared to 1700 professional staff.

Of all the emergency incidents the Fire Service attends, the volunteers go to "about half" of them, she said.

Volunteering NZ said it applauded all volunteers, but also recognised employers needed to have policies created in consultation with staff around when it was appropriate to volunteer during work time.
- Additional reporting: Matthew Theunissen


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