Published Wednesday, 16 October 2013
The report has criticised the two senior fire service members. (© Getty)
Former chief fire officer Peter Craig was criticised by the Public Accounts Committee for the "appalling" treatment of Linda Ford.
Miss Ford won £20,000 compensation after taking a case against the fire service. She was suspended on suspicion of breaching data security when she reported financial irregularities after a probe which lasted almost two years.
When she submitted two grievances against Mr Craig in 2011, Mr Craig personally responded to the first and was involved in responding to the second - the complaints were not heard by an independent person - which the PAC said was "totally improper".
"The Committee is in no doubt that the decision by Mr Craig to suspend Ms Ford was directly related to her whistleblowing and it was clearly wrong," a PAC report said.
The fire service chairman, Joe McKee, was also involved in the mistreatment of Ms Ford, according to the MLAs, as he should have been alert to the possibility of victimisation.
"The committee finds it completely unacceptable that NIFRS allowed the investigation into the alleged data protection breach to continue for so long as it did.
"The Committee considers that it is deplorable that a member of staff should have a potentially serious disciplinary matter hanging over their head for such a lengthy period: this would place anyone under intolerable pressure."
The report also criticised the Department of Health, which oversees the service, for failing to intervene to look into the "extremely high turnover" of staff and "lengthy vacancies at senior management level".
SDLP MLA and PAC deputy chairman John Dallat said: "In order to address the dysfunctional culture in NIFRS, three things must happen: there must be effective leadership to drive up standards; good management to ensure that the right procedures are in place and are applied; and appropriate disciplinary action when failures occur."
The report follows previous probes by the Department of Health and NI Audit Office which found failings in the service, including the handling of whistleblowers.
Responding to the report, Health Minister Edwin Poots said his department "will learn from this experience".
"It is continuing to strengthen its accountability arrangements with NIFRS, focussing on all areas of performance to include the effectiveness of NIFRS's own governance arrangements, use of resources and its quality and effectiveness of service delivery," he said.
"I am determined that the NIFRS must move to a position where the main focus can be on ensuring the delivery of a fully effective and efficient fire service, which can meet the future needs of the population in Northern Ireland."
He added that he has launched a campaign to increase awareness in organisations such as the NIFRS to have appropriate whistleblowing policies in place.
Mr Poots added: "We need to ensure that lessons are learned from the handling of the whistleblowers in this case."
© UTV News