Firefighter harassment claim to continue

Efforts by Fire Rescue Victoria to dismiss major parts of a sexual harassment case brought by one of the state's most experienced female firefighters have been knocked back.

Donna Wheatley first joined what was then the Metropolitan Fire Brigade in 1998 and claims exposure to improper sexualised conduct at work began the same year.

After a series of short term contracts she was recruited for ongoing employment in 2003 and continued until June 2021 when, after reaching the rank of operational commander, she made a worker's compensation claim.

In a claim against FRV, Ms Wheatley has alleged ongoing sexual harassment throughout her employment from 1998 to 2021, giving detailed descriptions of incidents, the identifies of people involved and the impacts upon her.

All allegations of misconduct before 2015 should be struck out because there is a clear and significant prejudice in responding to historical parts of the complaint, FRV had claimed in a hearing in August.

But that bid was rejected in orders handed down on Thursday.

"The allegations paint a picture of serious and sustained harassment and abuse of the application in the course of her employment," Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal member Mary Cameron ruled on Thursday.

FRV's lawyers had argued a number of people named in Ms Wheatley's submissions were unable or unwilling to give evidence in the case, and that the nature of the claims gave rise to competing factual accounts of events that occurred a long time ago.

But Ms Wheatley's lawyers argued it was not plausible that the people who were involved in or witnessed the alleged conduct would not remember it.

Confronted with a claim there was no reason for her not to come forward earlier, Ms Wheatley's legal team also pointed out that she was one of a small number of female firefighters and that FRV has a virtual monopoly on their employment in Victoria.

Internal complaints were routinely ignored, she said.

Ms Wheatley said the work environment at FRV was characterised by sexist and misogynistic behaviours, a lack of organisational commitment to addressing behaviour and victims being discouraged from complaining.

"It was in these circumstances that she formed the view that making an external complaint would both harm her career prospects, and have adverse consequences for her in the workplace," the VCAT member said, finding it was in the public interest for the proceeding to continue in its existing form.

Ms Wheatley said she tried to focus on bringing and cultural change to FRV until 2016 when she reported becoming seriously unwell as a result of her work.

In mid-2021 she suffered a serious psychological injury caused by an accumulation of trauma arising from the harassment, her complaint alleges.

The case will now proceed to a directions hearing.