Incident in which 17-year-old CFA volunteer manhandled is 'sickening' but should be left CFA: police minister

UPDATE THURSDAY 9am: The state’s police minister has described footage of a physical incident inside the Eaglehawk CFA centre as “concerning” but said the views of the victim must be respected.

Victorian MP Lisa Neville yesterday responded to vision of four middle-aged men pulling at the hair of a 17-year-old girl and dragging her to the ground. 

"This footage is extremely concerning," Ms Neville said.

 "I understand Victoria Police have investigated this and no complaint has been made by the woman involved.

"We need to respect the views of the victim.

”I understand the CFA is also investigating this incident and have taken immediate actions to address the work culture."

The CFA has suspended four men accused of manhandling the girl, including station captain Hayden Allen. 

In a statement to media yesterday, a CFA spokesperson said their organisation was “adamant that it will not tolerate inappropriate behaviour”.

“We are committed to making the organsiation more inclusive,” they said.

“Any behaviour that is not consistent with our values and doesn’t meet reasonable community standards will not be accepted within the organisation.”

UPDATE 8.30pm: Victoria Police dropped an investigation into the manhandling of a 17-year-old female CFA volunteer because they were satisfied there was no criminal wrongdoing.  

Inspector Shane Brundell said on Wednesday the girl’s version of events convinced officers there were no charges for four suspended CFA members to answer. 

“There are occasions when people retract their versions, or their version of events is somewhat favoured to minimise the culpability of another person,” Inspector Brundell said.

“On this occasion, that wasn’t the case.

“As far as any inappropriate workplace behaviour, cultural behaviour – that’s a matter for the CFA.”

That behaviour was labelled “shocking” by VEOHRC commissioner Kristen Hilton, who also saw the footage today.

She said no person should endure the treatment the teenage girl experienced.  

“The incident is an example of why we were commissioned to undertake an independent review into sexual harassment, discrimination and bullying within the CFA and MFB in 2016,” Ms Hilton said.

She hoped the Supreme Court would greenlight the release of her organisation’s review before Christmas and that its findings would accelerate “critical” cultural change with the fire agencies.

UPDATE 3.25pm: The Victorian Opposition Leader has used an incident inside Eaglehawk CFA station to call for a royal commission into every aspect of the state’s fire services. 

Liberal leader Matthew Guy said today a royal commission would have the “strength and force” to recommend the overhaul of the organisations’ culture.  

“This government that says it wants to combat bullying has sat back and watched it occur in our fire services with evidence on the minister's desk through the EOHRC report,” Mr Guy said.

But a spokesperson for emergency services minister James Merlino said the government did not have the VEOHRC report, nor could it release its findings.  

Mr Merlino himself said another government-funded inquiry into the CFA would be “wasteful”. 

“There's already been review after review that has made the clear what the problems are in our fire services,” Mr Merlino said. 

UPDATE 2.40pm: The captain of a CFA station under investigation for an incident involving a 17-year-old volunteer has claimed on social media his name is being “tarnished”.

Hayden Allen was one of four men suspended from Eaglehawk CFA this week after CCTV footage emerged of them perpetrating an incident on a young, female member. 

“As you are aware my name has been tarnished throughout the media today,” Mr Allen wrote to his followers in a now-deleted post. 

“Please understand that I can not make comment on the allegations that have been accused.

“But like all things there is [sic] two sides to every story and unfortunately we just have to ride the wave.”

The Bendigo Advertiser contacted Mr Allen but he declined to comment.  

UPDATE 2.15pm: The chief executive officer of the Centre for Non-Violence says she is looking for concrete action from the CFA to address systemic issues in the organisation.

Margaret Augerinos said she wanted to know what the CFA would do to ensure its members knew their responsibilities and would abide by community expectations and standards.

She said the incident suggested there was probably a lack of leadership, at least at the brigade level.

One of the men suspended following the incident is brigade captain Hayden Allen, who last month publicly displayed support on social media for White Ribbon Day and ending violence against women.

Ms Augerinos said it was easy for people to take pledges and wear a ribbon on their lapel, but they often did not see how their own values and attitudes contributed to behaviour they claimed to be against.

She said these values were driven by attitudes towards women, gender equality, and power and authority.

Ms Augerinos said another concerning aspect of the incident was the bystanders who did not intervene.

“None of us have the right to behave in a way that is violent or abusive towards other people,” she said.

UPDATE 1.30pm: The incident involving a teenage girl at Eaglehawk CFA station warrants the release of findings from a review into bullying and harrassment inside the organisation, the head of Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria has said.  

The Supreme Court is currently deliberating whether the results of a Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission review can be released.

The United Firefighters’ Union has argued the review was not in the powers of the commission and the method used to conduct the review was flawed. 

VFBV chief executive officer Andrew Ford said in a letter to his board today the VEOHRC results should be released as a matter or urgency, describing the delay as “absurd”. 

“While the investigation into this incident takes place, and without needing to cast judgement or assess the severity, here and now today all of us, Government, emergency sector leaders and all CFA people paid and volunteer alike, need to focus on getting the VEOHRC report released and then use it to draw a line in the sand and get on with the urgent task of shaping the right culture, values and behaviours throughout CFA and the emergency sector,” Mr Ford said.

“We talk about creating safer communities, people feeling safe from the threat of inappropriate behaviour, safe from discrimination and safe from harassment is part of that and we should embrace this role as core to who we are.”

UPDATE 1pm: The head of a local women’s refuge says she believes the incident involving four Eaglehawk CFA members and a teenage girl is likely indicative of the broader workplace culture at the station.

“To me, it says a lot about the culture of the workplace; it’s probably not an isolated incident,” chief executive officer of the Annie North women’s refuge, Julie Oberin, said.

Ms Oberin said she was “astounded” the police decided not to lay charges, saying it sent a message they thought such behaviour was acceptable.

“The criminal justice system needs to send a strong message to the community,” she said.

Bullying and intimidation existed on a spectrum, Ms Oberin said, that led to physical violence.

Ms Oberin said while such bullying happened to men as well, the difference in this situation was that the CFA was a traditionally male-dominated workplace and as such the victim, being a young female, was even less powerful in this context.

She referenced allegations of sexual harassment and assault against professional female members, which came to light in a leaked internal report on gender diversity.

The report also revealed a culture of bullying in the organisation.

But Ms Oberin praised the decision to stand down the four members involved in the incident, as well as the response from CFA chief officer Steve Warrington.

“We can't tolerate this behaviour in CFA anymore,” Mr Warrington said.

UPDATE 11.35am: The chief officer of the CFA has slammed the actions of volunteers involved in an incident involving a young, female member at the Eaglehawk station.   

The Bendigo Advertiser has seen CCTV footage of the incident from November 27, the same day hundreds of people,  including CFA members, joined Bendigo’s White Ribbon Day march.  

The video shows a male volunteer pulling the girl by her hair until she is doubled over. 

The girl is then dragged in a circle while trying to pull away from the man’s grasp.

Another man goes to kick the victim. She is also pushed under the front of a fire truck and the vehicle’s sprinkler system is turned onto her.

Throughout the violent incident, a male onlooker leans against the front of an adjacent vehicle, hand on his hip. 

Several others walk past casually, appearing unperturbed.  

The incident occurred during normal daily operations at the station.

Chief officer Steve Warrington said the men’s behaviour was unacceptable and also condemned the behaviour of bystanders who watched as it was carried out. 

“Sitting by and saying or doing nothing is frankly just as bad,” Mr Warrington said. 

“People, this stuff belongs in the past, full stop.

“We can't tolerate this behaviour in CFA anymore.” 

A Victoria Police spokesperson said officers investigated the incident but no complaint was made and no offence was detected.

“This matter is now complete,” the spokesperson said.

UPDATE 10:20am: The captain of the Eaglehawk CFA station is one of four men implicated in an incident involving a 17-year-old volunteer.

Hayden Allen was suspended from duties this week after footage surfaced of the incident. 

On November 24 this year, Mr Allen posted a picture to his Facebook profile depicting him in his uniform, with the White Ribbon Day logo and the words, “I will stand up, speak out and act to prevent men’s violence against women.”

Mr Allen declined to comment.

UPDATE 9:30am: The behaviour of Eaglehawk CFA members suspended after an incident involving a 17-year-old girl has been condemned by the state’s emergency services minister. 

James Merlino said today the incident was “appalling”, and not in line with community expectations.  

“As Minister for Emergency Services and as a parent, I am disgusted that a 17-year-old girl has been treated in this way,” Mr Merlino said. 

"For years we have been saying that we have significant cultural and diversity issues across our fire services and we are genuinely trying to make change.

“Enough is enough.

“We need to stop talking about it and get on with the job of doing it.” 

EARLIER: Four CFA members from Eaglehawk CFA station have been suspended after CCTV footage showed them  carrying out physical actions towards a young, female member.  

It is understood the video shows a young female volunteer being pushed to the ground, dragged by her feet, pushed under a parked truck before having sprinklers turned on her. 

It is not known when the video was recorded. 

CFA chief executive officer Frances Diver said she was "sickened" by the footage. 

"I was horrified and very disturbed," Ms Diver said.

"It was completely unacceptable behaviour and sickens everyone who sees that footage." 

She said the CFA made contact with the young woman and her family this week. The victim was unharmed and did not want to pursue the matter further. 

Victoria police have been notified. 

The video also shows a number of other CFA members watching on as the incident takes place. 

An investigation is now underway into the incident with Ms Diver believing similar incidents could have occurred at the brigade.  

"There is a cultural problem we need to address."

Details of the men’s behaviour came to light just one week after White Ribbon Day, when the CFA released a statement asking members to take a stand against violence. 

In the statement, Chief officer Steve Warrington said: “We have traditionally been a male-dominated organisation – that includes career and volunteer firefighters,” he said.

“Increasing gender diversity is important, but so is individual responsibility to call out poor behaviour. 

“We know we have to lift our game when it comes to inclusion and increasing diversity in CFA – that’s a priority for CFA leaders.

“But there’s also a role each and every person within the organisation can play.”