The handling of sexual assault allegations by women volunteer firefighters has been condemned by the fire union president.

It comes as Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ) says it is going to launch an independent complaints body to deal with accusations of sexual abuse among the country's professional and volunteer firefighters.

In June the Herald revealed the story of one of three complainants, whose alleged attacker remained on the job as chief fire officer in the North Island brigade five years after the alleged incident.

The young woman, who was 21 at the time of the alleged assault in 2015, claimed her superior put his hand inside her underwear as she changed, and slapped her behind.

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Today New Zealand Professional Firefighters Union president Ian Wright has called out Fire and Emergency's leadership over the handling of the complaints in a blog on the union's website.

New Zealand Professional Firefighters Union president Ian Wright has condemned the handling of sexual abuse allegations by volunteer firefighters. Photo / Supplied
New Zealand Professional Firefighters Union president Ian Wright has condemned the handling of sexual abuse allegations by volunteer firefighters. Photo / Supplied

"As I listen to these women's stories it is clear to me that it is the 'handling' of these allegations, the systems and processes to deal with such deeply disrespectful, offensive and in some cases violent and illegal conduct has only deepened the hurt, inflamed it in some cases," Wright wrote.

"These women talk about delays, poor communication, a boy's club closing in on the victims and a general lack of action across many layers of the organisation, to me this is the culture that needs to be addressed.

He said the sexual attacks were perpetrated by individuals who felt they had the right to abuse, demean and assault women.

"The way others attempted to cover it up, bully and coerce these women into not complaining or leaving their volunteer service could well be a culture not just in those particular volunteer brigades, but throughout the leadership of the organisation including anyone who received those complaints and did nothing to hold the offenders to account."

"The stories of these courageous women revealed a sea of desperation, inaction, cover-ups and just downright disgusting behaviour within some volunteer brigades and by some individuals including those they went to for help."

Since the Herald revealed a volunteer firefighter claimed she was sexually assaulted by her chief fire officer, two more women have spoken publicly of their ordeals. Photo / File
Since the Herald revealed a volunteer firefighter claimed she was sexually assaulted by her chief fire officer, two more women have spoken publicly of their ordeals. Photo / File

He urged professional firefighters to protect colleagues as if they were family.

"If we see any inappropriate language or behaviour against anyone due to their gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation we need to step up and protect the person being victimised.

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"Because, what we know about sexual harassment and violence is that it does not exist in a vacuum, it surfaces in environments where sexist views are normalised, disrespectful behaviour and language goes unchallenged.

"Perhaps now is the right time to talk about how we can continue to improve in this area, we owe this to the women in our stations and in our lives."

A Facebook support group set up after the Herald's story included male and female victims.

The woman at the centre of the Herald story complained to Fire and Emergency in 2017 about being slapped on the behind but little action was taken.

She complained again earlier this year including making a complaint to police.

The police took no action so the woman asked for the case to be reviewed by police outside the district, which they agreed to do.

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A Facebook support group for survivors of sexual abuse hopes to connect firefighters and influence change at Fire and Emergency New Zealand. Photo / Supplied
A Facebook support group for survivors of sexual abuse hopes to connect firefighters and influence change at Fire and Emergency New Zealand. Photo / Supplied

She said the review was ongoing but the Herald understands the chief fire officer has been stood down pending an investigation by FENZ.

The woman said she had been interviewed about her account by a lawyer who would report back to FENZ but she had little confidence in the organisation after she claims an area commander suggested she was lying.

Since 2015 there had been 24 complaints of sexual harassment by firefighters according to data by FENZ sought by the Herald under the Official Information Act in June.

The information was released publicly on Monday and showed 21 of the complaints were about volunteer firefighters and two about FENZ staff. One could not be determined.

Three firefighters resigned over the allegations, three were dismissed and three complaints remain ongoing with two being referred to the police. The others were resolved or unresolved.

Retired Judge Coral Shaw was called in by Fire and Emergency in 2018 to address a systemic workplace culture problem.

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The report showed bullying and harassment culture that came from the very highest levels of FENZ.

Fire and Emergency chief executive Rhys Jones could not comment on the progress of the young woman's complaint but said unacceptable behaviour was not tolerated at the organisation.

"However, I acknowledge and regret that sexual misconduct has occurred in the past and is still occurring in this organisation.

"The vast majority of our people act ethically and respectfully, but unfortunately not everyone does. Unwanted behaviour has been a feature at all levels of the organisation."

Since the Shaw report FENZ was:

• Removing barriers to reporting complaints;

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• Establishing a dedicated Behaviour and Conduct Office for education and training on values-based behaviour and where firefighters can report unwanted behaviour, and;

• Releasing a new Code of Behaviour and a policy to address bullying, harassment and victimisation.

"We are committed to stamping this behaviour out and the first step to doing that is to know about it.

"We want people to feel safe to report unwanted behaviour and know their complaints will be taken seriously."

If the public or volunteers believed their complaint had not been reasonably resolved, they could access a disputes resolution scheme.