20 Nov 2015

Tensions smoulder over Mangawhai fire chief

1:53 pm on 20 November 2015

The Northland town of Mangawhai has its old volunteer fire brigade back after the departure of its controversial former chief, Mike McEnaney.

In the past three years 15 volunteers have left the brigade saying Mr McEnaney was the reason they quit.

But since he was suspended two weeks ago many of them have rejoined.

Chief Fire Officer and Area Commander Wipari Henwood said eight experienced firefighters had returned, or were in the process of re-engaging.

"The community can rest assured that today we have a brigade that can respond to incidents that happen in our community," he said.

Local businessman Trevor Downey, whose son has just rejoined the brigade, said that was a relief.

He said before Mr McEnaney's suspension there was no one left on the brigade, and available on week days, who was qualified for emergency driving or operating the pumps.

Mr Downey said the town had been relying on neighbouring brigades, like Kaiwaka, to come to its aid but in the last fortnight former members who had the missing skills had turned out for training.

"The old stalwarts of the fire brigade turned back up - it was good," he said.

"The feedback we got was the atmosphere was great; there was no mucking around; they got into their training and away they went."

But rifts caused by the dissension in the brigade remain and Mangawhai is not yet at peace.

A number of recent recruits to the brigade have remained loyal to former chief Mr McEnaney, and are calling for his return.

Mr Henwood said those recruits were now boycotting the brigade.

They appeared to blame the old brigade members for their former boss's suspension, even though the Fire Service has said that was triggered by a complaint from the Auckland station, where Mr McEnaney was a paid safety officer.

Mr Downey said a couple of "Macca supporters", as he calls them, had turned up at his business and hurled abuse at staff while he was away.

"It's really quite digesting. It's unprofessional, it's childish. If it happens again they'll be trespassed off my property, and made to stay 200 metres away.

"They won't be able to go down the [main] street. If I'd been there they'd have been marched off the premises. So if they want that to happen, please carry on. I'm sure they don't. "

A local woman who helped organise the town's petition for Mr McEnaney's removal said she was yelled at in the main street last week.

She asked not to be named, but said before Mr McEnaney was suspended two volunteers turned up at her workplace and threatened her.

"They were very abusive; I was threatened with getting punched in the face if I came any closer to them. I was just trying to defuse the situation. I could have actually lost my job over it and they were in uniform too which made it even worse."

The woman said they accused her of stalking brigade members and timing their response to callouts, an accusation she said was ludicrous.

Mr Henwood confirmed he was dealing with two complaints of harassment, linked to conflict following Mr McEnaney's departure.

"I've asked people to first report any harassment to the police; these incidents have happened outside the Fire Service itself. We take all cases of harassment seriously, and so I'll be investigating all the ones I've received. "

Mr Henwood said he hoped that in time the more recent recruits would return to the brigade. He said both factions were driven by a strong desire to serve and protect the Mangawhai community, and he would like to think that desire would eventually win out over the conflicts and grudges of the past.