A firefighter who has accused Meath County Council of a “whitewash” investigation into bullying complaints he made against a senior officer wants to get his job back – as long as it’s not in Nobber.
Former soldier Laurence Farrell, a retained firefighter in the Co Meath town from 2015 to 2021, said that his complaints about verbal abuse and bullying by a now-retired station officer and exclusionary treatment were not dealt with by the county council, leaving him with no option other than quit.
Meath County Council denies Mr Farrell’s constructive dismissal claim and maintains his complaints were dealt with in line with the national statutory code on bullying.
Giving evidence before the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) in his complaint under the Unfair Dismissals Act 1977, Mr Farrell said he “didn’t do himself any favours” early in his employment, when he raised an issue over first aid supplies.
Mr Farrell said that on one of his first call-outs with Meath Fire Service, he opened a medical bag at the scene of a road traffic crash only to find the bandages and other first aid equipment were between seven and ten years out of date.
The tribunal heard he got approval to restock, but over-ordered in error and was criticised by a previous station officer, who has since retired.
Mr Farrell said he replied: “Look, I won’t lie for ye when we get to the Coroner’s Court and people are dead on the side of the road because we haven’t got bandages to use.”
Mr Farrell described further disagreements with his station officer over payments for going on a truck driving course, and later being prevented from training.
“He [the former station officer] got very aggressive and screamed at me: ‘You’ve shot yourself in both feet. You’ve done yourself some serious damage,’” Mr Farrell said of one such occasion.
Later, when he expressed interest in a winch course being held in Navan in March 2020, he asked his then-station officer why he was one of two of the seven Nobber firefighters not being sent.
“He just looked at me and said: ‘You’re not going on the course,’” Mr Farrell said, continuing: “I said: ‘Why.’ He said: ‘You’re not going on the course because I’ve decided you’re not going on the course, now get the f**k out.’”
Meath Fire Service witnesses who gave evidence at hearings last September and on Friday, said the training lists were drawn up by officers in headquarters, and not by station officers.
“Lar questioned why he wasn’t going [on the winch course] and it turned into, eh, a bit of a debate and got a bit heated. I had left, other firefighters had left, anything that happened after that I cannot comment on because I wasn’t present,” said Michael Finnegan, who was sub-officer at Nobber at the time of the incidents alleged by Mr Farrell, and now commands the fire station.
Mr Farrell also told the WRC that the retired station officer later failed to process his wage claims for three months, until in early 2020 he took his forms from Nobber personally and brought them to Navan to submit directly at the fire service headquarters.
Mr Farrell said that he finally had to go on sick leave after his station officer swore at him again when he got a new pager and lodged a complaint in February 2020.
Siptu official Dave Curran said the council’s dignity at work policy required a formal investigation to interview the claimant and the alleged perpetrator and to continue to interview any other witnesses identified, but that this had not been done in his client’s case.
“[HR] never even interviewed any witnesses, they never asked anybody else but them two people, they just tried to whitewash it,” Mr Farrell said.
“I don’t see any of the firefighters any more. I don’t see any of my peers any more, so literally like an outcast, near enough like. It’s very nasty, very nasty,” Mr Farrell said.
“I don’t agree with Lar’s statement of being victimised among the other crew. In Nobber, we’re a very small close-knit community. Five of us live locally, Lar’s kids play with my kids,” Mr Finnegan said.
Amanda Kane of the Local Government Management Authority, who appeared for the council, said had it resolved Mr Farrell’s bullying complaint using the informal process set out in its procedures rather than the formal investigation procedure cited by Mr Curran.
The informal process found no evidence the behaviour Mr Farrell had complained of “met the threshold” for bullying and the matter did not progress to the formal process, Ms Kane said.
Ms Kane added that there is “no automatic entitlement” to a formal investigation under the policy.
The tribunal heard Mr Farrell felt he could not go back to working in the “life or death” environment of the fire service while reporting to the same station officer and remained on sick leave as a mediation process continued into late 2020.
He eventually tendered his resignation in December 2020 when the sick leave expired and the council would not place him on special leave and allow him to continue to draw social welfare as a retained firefighter, an option Mr Curran said was open to them.
Meath’s Chief Fire Officer Sheila Broderick said in evidence that no other complaints had ever been made to her about the station officer accused by Mr Farrell of bullying him.
She said ranking fire officers “would take on board” comments by their subordinates but that ultimately “they have to make a decision” and that the “army-style” rank system was a safety measure.
“We can’t train everybody all the time in everything,” she said of Mr Farrell’s complaints about the training incidents.
Chief Broderick confirmed that there was “no formal investigation” into Mr Farrell’s complaint, referring to terms in the employee handbook that stated “an informal or mediated outcome is usually the most suitable”.
Mr Curran said reinstatement to the fire service was Mr Farrell’s preferred remedy in advance of compensation, but that his client “doesn’t believe he can go back to that particular fire station”.
Ms Kane submitted that there were no vacancies in the fire service, and any which arose would be filled by open competition.
Adjudicating officer Maria Kelly closed the hearing and said she would issue her decision in due course.