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Exclusive: Former firefighters say they were sexually assaulted by colleagues while working at FENZ

Nikyta joined New Zealand’s fire service because she wanted to help people.

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Five women 1 NEWS has spoken to say they were sexually abused or harassed while working at the agency. Source: 1 NEWS

When she was 8 years old, she saw a house burn down, and from that day on knew she wanted to become a firefighter.

“I was just like wow. I wanted to be a part of saving something and helping people and it just triggered a major passion from there," she told 1 NEWS.

It was a dream job at first, Nikyta fondly remembers the tough work, late nights, and early morning breakfast runs.

She described her brigade as a family.

“You work with each other so closely. You’re missing your child’s birthday, part of Christmas, all those kinds of things. So spending time with [the brigade], you do become close and they do become your family.”

But, the job went from dream to nightmare after she was sexually assaulted by another firefighter.

She was 20 years old at the time.

“All of a sudden, his hands are in my shorts. That was, yeah, a big part of my life changing really.”

The alleged incident took place five years ago and Nikyta says it's haunted her ever since.

“You try and do the best to move on and deal with it in the best way possible but I still have nights where I wake up and it’s horrible. I don’t want him as part of my life. I don’t want him part of my dreams.”

It took Nikyta a couple of years before she had fully comprehended what had happened to her. It was then she decided to complain to Fire and Emergency New Zealand.

“They took my complaint, they done [sic] bare minimum correspondence and they, in my eyes, wanted the problem to go away," she said.

When she filed a police report, New Zealand Police wrote to Nikyta and said after looking at the available evidence it had not been able to find out who was respsonsible for her assault.

Without more information or evidence, police said the case could not proceed any further.

NZ Police wrote to Nikyta to say it was unable to find out who was responsible and the case would not proceed any further.

“That was the letter. They couldn’t identify the person responsible. And that just really pissed me off to be honest. I felt like I would’ve had more luck if someone had just broken into my car. So I made a very public post.”

Earlier this year, Nikyta publicly complained about her assault.

She says it was only then that FENZ took her complaint seriously and took action.

1 NEWS understands the man at the centre of the investigation has been suspended pending an investigation, five years after the alleged incident took place.

Nikyta said she’s speaking up about her experience and assault now because she’s a mum, and she hopes it’ll help others feel comfortable speaking out too.

“I want to show my kids that as hard as things are sometimes, telling the truth is the best thing.”

Nikyta’s story is not the only one of its kind.

Other former and current volunteer firefighters have spoken to 1NEWS about how they were treated after reporting workplace sexual harassment and bullying.

Jaymie says she was raped 16 years ago while working for the organisation. She was 22.

“This was a person I trusted. I didn’t even know how to process it. It was such an unexpected assault. And then when I went to get help, nobody would listen to me or believe me," she said.

When Jaymie attempted to file a police report at the time of the assault, she says the officer she spoke with was friends with her assailant.

“[He said to me] ‘Girls like you are disposable,’ that just made me feel so sick and so angry.”

She also described the following as her experience after complaining to Fire and Emergency.

“[They were] just taking it in turns to just say hideous things. I put them in my police statement but I’d rather not repeat them.”

Jaymie told 1 NEWS she was bullied out of the service.

She’s been fighting for accountability ever since the assault happened, and nearly two decades later, Fire and Emergency has apologised for how her complaint was handled.

“I accepted it because I’m tired. [But] I felt very coerced and bullied into accepting it.”

Jaymie says she doesn’t know whether or not the man she alleges assaulted her was ever investigated by Fire and Emergency.

Former and current volunteer firefighters who want to remain anonymous have described to 1 NEWS incidents of unwanted sexual attention, assault and harassment during their time working at brigades around the country.

They say incidents were initiated by men much older than them, who also outranked them.

One person felt they could never complain to Fire and Emergency because they were determined to fit in and didn’t want to be bullied.

Others are still trying to get their complaints properly investigated by the organisation years after their assaults occurred.

In 2019, an independent review into Fire and Emergency’s procedures for dealing with workplace bullying and harassment was published.

Chaired by retired judge, Coral Shaw, it found bullying and harassment is rife within the service, with 45 per cent of those who participated in the review reporting they had witnessed or experienced bullying and harassment.

Thirty-three recommendations were made in the report, including the organisation acknowledge and systematically address the barriers to reporting bullying and harassment.

It also recommended a set of procedures and practices for receiving and managing complaints of bullying and harassment is formulated ‘without delay’.

The report called on the organisation to accept and implement all its recommendations over a period of 26 months.

Fire and Emergency were unable to tell 1 NEWS which of these have been implemented, but said it’s actively working to remove barriers to reporting, has established a dedicated Behaviour and Conduct Office and is releasing a new Code of Behaviour outlining expectations for its staff.

Chief Executive Rhys Jones told 1 NEWS in a statement the vast majority of Fire and Emergency personnel behave ethically and respectfully, and he has a zero tolerance for bullying and harassment of any kind.

“I acknowledge and regret that sexual misconduct has occurred in the past and is still occurring in this organisation. It is clear we must change our culture. We are making progress with that, but change takes time. It is difficult, and at times uncomfortable. However, it will make us stronger and allow us to focus on what we do best – keeping New Zealanders safe.”

1 NEWS understands information on the organisation’s active and recent assault and harassment complaints will be released this month.

Do you have more information about this story? Contact our reporter Imogen Wells at imogen.wells@tvnz.co.nz