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‘Culture of fear’ in fire department, firefighter says

A London firefighter said he’s been raising the alarm about a “culture of fear” within the city’s fire department for years, even taking complaints about workplace harassment to top city managers in recent months, according to emails obtained by The Free Press.

“Here we are, people that will run into burning buildings. But we’re scared of being taken to the principal’s office,” the firefighter said, citing heavy-handed disciplinary tactics and reprisals for those who speak out. The Free Press agreed not to identify him because he fears further repercussions for speaking out.

Claims of workplace harassment at city hall erupted Monday night, just hours after council spent two hours behind closed doors at a rare special council meeting. Politicians met to discuss a “personal matter” regarding “identifiable individuals” but did not report any further information in public session.

Just after 5 p.m., the city issued a statement from city manager Martin Hayward outlining the corporation’s commitment to a safe work environment free of harassment, and urging anyone who has witnessed or experienced harassment to come forward.

In an interview Monday night, Hayward said he’s not aware of a systemic harassment problem – as charged by a local activist – in the city’s workforce.

“We do have an obligation to undertake appropriate investigations,” he said, adding he can’t speak to specific cases because of the need to keep those involved confidential.

“We can’t go into the details of things because everybody needs to be protected from a privacy point of view.”

Megan Walker, executive director of the London Abused Women’s Centre, said she’s supporting more than two dozen city employees who say they’ve been harassed or bullied for speaking out on behalf of colleagues. She confirmed that many of the complaints stem from the fire department but problems exist in many city departments.

The firefighter who spoke to The Free Press said he was suddenly called in for disciplinary meetings after many years with a spotless record – a reaction he believes is punishment for flagging problems in the department.

The employee described his co-workers as “demoralized and fearful” in an email sent to city manager Martin Hayward in November.

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“Not only does this make for a poor working environment it makes for an extremely dangerous emergency scene,” he wrote. “Everyone, and I know that’s very inclusive wording, that I have had contact with has expressed both their fears and concerns to me.”

Fire captains are worried they’ll be punished for making the wrong call at a crucial moment when fighting a fire, he told The Free Press.

Some drivers are hesitant to pull out of the fire hall in an emergency after two drivers were called into meetings with superiors because they clipped mirrors on their trucks on their way to a scene, the firefighter said.

In 2016, an investigation was triggered against London deputy fire chief Brian McLaughlin, who allegedly made a comment about a female employee’s breasts.

Though under the purview of city hall, the London fire department is somewhat distinct from the seat of government, with its own sites and administration.

City councillors were tight-lipped Tuesday about claims of widespread harassment at city hall.

But Coun. Maureen Cassidy came to the defence of city administration, saying she is sensitive to issues of harassment in the workplace and does not believe there is an ongoing issue at city hall.

“I spend a lot of time at city hall, I like to work there and honestly I have not noticed that kind of atmosphere,” she said.

“To say there are things going on and a toxic environment, I have not seen evidence of it.”

She was also reassured the workplace unions had little comment on the allegation.

“I am not obtuse about this. There was definitely an atmosphere there when there was a strike. There was a problem in human resources last year and there have been major changes in that department. But things have quieted down.”

Cassidy added that there is always room for improvement, and said she’s confident city council will make additional revisions to corporate harassment policies if necessary.

“We’re not afraid to tear something down to the bare bones and build it up again,” she said of city policies and procedures.

-with files from Free Press reporter Norman DeBono

Source: ‘Culture of fear’ in fire department, firefighter says | The London Free Press