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Fire chief stood down

Fire crews on French St, Martinborough, in 2015, at a boat and shed fire on a property. Officer in Charge, Bill Butzbach [white helmet, centre]. PHOTO/FILE.

Bill Butzbach facing sexual harassment, bullying allegations dating back to his time in Martinborough

United Fire Brigade Association CEO Bill Butzbach. PHOTO/rnz.co.nz

The chief executive officer of the volunteer firefighters’ association, Bill Butzbach, is the subject of an independent investigation relating to two complaints alleging sexual misconduct and bullying when he was fire chief in Martinborough.

The United Fire Brigade Association board has appointed Kristy McDonald QC to investigate the complaints.

Brigade association chairman Richie Smith, said on Tuesday that he had “taken over” the CEO’s duties while the allegations were investigated.

“Many of you would be aware that we are currently investigating two separate allegations from two volunteer firefighters involving the UFBA chief executive,” Smith said.

“It was alleged that these incidents occurred several years ago, and this matter is being fully investigated by an independent QC.

“In the meantime, I have taken over chief executive duties while the complaints are investigated.”

In a statement, Fire and Emergency New Zealand said it welcomed the investigation. It first became aware of a complaint against Butzbach in 2016.

It said an independent barrister was appointed to investigate the allegations, but it could not discuss the findings.

The brigade association receives funding of $4.3 million a year from FENZ to represent 550 volunteer brigades and 11,500 firefighters.

FENZ chief executive Rhys Jones said it would be inappropriate to comment on what is an operational matter for the brigade association’s management.

The two complaints against Butzbach related to incidents several years ago when he was fire chief in Martinborough and on the board of the brigade association.

One complaint relates to sexual harassment in what the complainant describes as a “hazing incident” in a restaurant in Martinborough.

The other complainant wants the terms of reference for the inquiry to “include sexual assault, sexual harassment, unwanted sexual advances, bullying, harassment and victimisation”.

The terms of reference are yet to be determined.

The investigation comes as Fire and Emergency faces mounting pressure over the way it handles complaints over sexual assault, harassment and bullying.

Last week the Professional Fire Fighters Union expressed no confidence in FENZ leadership over its handling of complaints and said it was representing at least 10 volunteers who have lost faith in the brigade association to advocate for them.

Smith said he could not comment on individual cases.

Normally, the brigade association does not run its own investigation process as “at the more serious end of the scale, they are dealt with by police or a FENZ process”, he said.

Smith said in the past year the brigade association was contacted for assistance and support in 109 new cases, 20 of which related to “bullying, harassment and exclusion”.

Eighty-four of the 109 cases were resolved.

“There have been some behavioural issues both with the paid firefighters that the [PFU] union represents, the 1800 of them, and through our ranks as well, and that is not acceptable,” he said.

“Anyone with concerns should be very free and come forward into a process that is robust, independent and timely.”

Butzbach’s career as a firefighter stretches back 44 years.

He started out as a volunteer in the mid-1970s in Bay of Plenty, before deciding to make a career of it.

He then spent three decades rising through the ranks, wearing many hats in senior roles at various regions throughout the country.

He linked with the Martinborough brigade in 2012.

– RNZ, additional reporting by Arthur Hawkes

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