Bullying and harassment. These two words have become quite the buzzwords in recent years. Back when I was younger, it seemed the general reaction when these occurred was to look the other way, that this is the way things are. A person experiencing either was usually left to deal with it on their own – brushed off by others with dismissive words like “punch the bully in the nose” or “to get along you have to play along.”
Yet the consequences of ignoring these issues can be tragic. Too often we hear of those who have taken their lives after being pushed to the breaking point because of bullying or harassment. Department leaders must take seriously any allegations brought forth from members and fully investigate without recrimination against those making charges as their lives may depend on it. And isn’t saving lives a vital task of the fire service?
Firefighters in the U.S. have one of the best “brands.” It doesn’t matter if one is a career, paid-on-call, or volunteer firefighter. We are identified as one of the most trusted and admired groups of people. We are seen as willing to lay our lives on the line for complete strangers in their time of need. We are heroes. How often do young children, when asked what they want to be when they grow up, respond with ‘firefighter?’
Unfortunately, despite this reputation, the fire service is not immune to firefighters bullying or harassing other firefighters because of their gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, or any other perceived “differences.” It certainly tarnishes our “brand” when the media reports on cases of firefighters bullying or harassing other firefighters or of discrimination in the firehouse. News stories, some resulting in criminal charges, of firefighters hiding recording devices in showers, sleeping, or changing areas, stories of those tampering with other firefighters’ gear or messing with their personal items, stories of hostility or unwanted advances toward others diminish our “brand” in the eyes of the people we serve and who look up to us. The public respects firefighters, and we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard.
Many volunteer/paid-on-call departments are struggling to attract new members to fill their ranks. That’s not news to most in the volunteer fire service. In order to get – and keep – members, we need to make our departments a place people want to be and where they feel safe and valued. All department members bring their unique perspective, skills, gifts, and life experience with them in wanting to serve their communities. Department leaders ought to embrace the opportunities presented by welcoming individuals of underrepresented groups. We are a stronger fire service when many different viewpoints are adopted.
If we want to have enough members to keep the doors open, we must look to different and underutilized audiences as sources of new recruits. A department’s make-up should be reflective of the area’s demographics, but all too often that is not the case. In these gaps we have significant areas of opportunity to expand our membership and gain from the experiences and strengths of a more diverse group. Here is one glaring example; generally half the population of any community is made up of women, yet this is a largely untapped source of volunteers for most fire departments.
At the same time, we can’t expect women (or any group) to be eager to join our ranks if they are not treated with respect and equity. Too often female recruits and existing female firefighters are sexually harassed or discriminated against by their male peers. Several years ago, a female colleague shared her experience of joining a nearby department as its first female firefighter and was met with great resistance by its members. Reportedly members had business cards that read, and I’m paraphrasing, ‘lions tamed, bears wrestled, and women kept in the kitchen.’ After enduring a great deal of harassment and bullying from members of the department, she sued the department and city, which was ultimately settled out of court in her favor. She chose not to continue pursuing her dream to join that department given its demeaning culture and attitude towards women.
Ali Rothrock is a firefighter I had the privilege to hear speak regarding the importance of stopping harassment, bullying, and discrimination in the fire service. I was horrified to listen to Ali describe her years of sexual harassment and abuse by her firehouse “brothers.” Ali shared the following:
When I found firefighting at 16 years old, I knew I’d found where I was meant to be. I fell head-over-heels in love with it immediately and threw myself headlong into learning everything I could about the job. But I quickly learned that the firefighters I was around weren’t interested in who I was or the potential I had as a firefighter. They wanted a girl who was going to fit into the stereotype they held of women and women firefighters. They were interested in me for my body and looks, they weren’t interested in training me or taking me seriously as a young firefighter.
The treatment I endured was dismissed as “hazing” and “nothing to get worked up about” but quickly progressed into sexual harassment, dangerous hostility, and sexual violence. Despite my passion for firefighting, my station was a place I dreaded going because I never knew if I was going to be threatened, terrorized, or arrive to find my gear or SCBA tampered with. I didn’t know if I’d be graphically compared to the naked pictures of women hanging in the bay or told what the other firefighters would do to me if they could get me alone. As a sixteen-year-old I was constantly propositioned for sexual favors in exchange for an “easier” firefighting environment. Whenever I brought these issues up, the firefighters would say things like “you’re just being too sensitive” or “if you don’t like it leave.”
After three years in the same firehouse, I went out of town for a ride-along. I was hoping to experience a better firefighting environment. But in this firehouse I experienced an attempted gang rape at the hands of three drunk firefighters. This new trauma sent my world spinning and completely shattered my sense of safety. I walked away from the fire service, determined never to step foot in another firehouse again.
Despicable behavior by her fellow firefighters, whose mission it is to help fellow human beings! I have daughters the same age as Ali. I felt ashamed as a man and father while I listened to Ali speak of the abuse and torment, beginning as a teenager, she suffered because of the behavior towards her of other “men.” I felt outrage at the people in charge of those departments – including the chief and the officers – due to their unwillingness to do anything to change the damaging, boorish, Neanderthal culture of those departments.
As a teen, Ali kept a journal of her daily life and continued journaling as she made her foray into the world of the fire service. She showed a picture of a storage tub filled with journals chronicling the events and her own thoughts and feelings she endured as a firefighter. She went on to describe being diagnosed with PTSD as a result of the trauma, seeking help, overcoming the effects of her diagnosis, thriving again, and ultimately returning to the fire service. She eventually found a department who welcomed her and her passion to serve as a firefighter.
The National Volunteer Fire Council joined together with the International Association of Fire Chiefs, International Association of Women in the Fire & Emergency Service, International Association of Black Professional Firefighters, National Association of Hispanic Firefighters, IAFC Volunteer & Combination Officers Section, and National Association of Training Directors to issue a joint Anti-Harassment, Bullying, and Discrimination Statement. The heart of this document states, “All members of fire, EMS, and rescue services should be treated and treat others with dignity and respect, free from harassment, bullying, and discrimination of any kind.” Harassment, bullying, and discrimination needs to be eliminated in our society and should absolutely not be tolerated in the firehouse. As I mentioned earlier, we all bring value to our firehouse as an individual. As the old saying goes, there is no “I” in team.
The statement serves as a call to action that fire and EMS organizations create and employ an anti-harassment, bullying, and discrimination policy. It must be communicated to all personnel and be consistently and fully enforced. Departments should also adopt a Code of Conduct or Ethics that spells out behavior expected of all. This is a fantastic show of solidarity among these fire service organizations, and all firefighters ought to have the same sentiment.
Ali suggested four fundamentals for departments to foster a positive culture or change from a culture that tolerates harassment, bullying, or discrimination.
- Leaders, ensure that your firefighters truly know your expectations of them. Don’t assume they have the same standards as you. Let them know what you (and the full department leadership) consider unacceptable in terms of their words and/or behavior and what the consequences will be if they break those codes of conduct. Be sure to follow through with those consequences if the need arises.
- Leaders, make sure your firefighters know that your door is always open and that you will listen with an open mind. Also, make sure they know who else they can go to with a problem if they are uncomfortable going to you.
- Encourage open and respectful discussions about the things that make us different. Gender, sexual orientation, religion – we are a stronger and more unified fire service if we can understand that despite our apparent or perceived differences, we are much more similar than we think.
- Do not be afraid to conclude that some people do not belong in the fire service. There are some people who consistently prove they do not care to adhere to the standards all firefighters should live up to. Do not bend the rules so they can stay. Those that refuse to follow a code of conduct and who make the environment worse for those around them should not have a place on the team.
I admire Ali and all those who stand up and fight against harassment, bullying, and discrimination. Ideally though, these would not be an issue in the fire service (or anywhere) if and when the culture changes to be inclusive toward others from top to bottom.
One more thought – I am sure some fire service leaders and firefighters are unaware they have issues with harassment, bullying, and/or discrimination. I feel some harassment, bullying, and discrimination is unintentional. Many are “slights” through actions or words in conversation. Words matter, especially when trying to create an inclusive environment. For example, the term ‘fireman’ or ‘firemen’ is exclusionary; ‘firefighter’ is inclusive. Over time, being a victim of these “slights” can wear a person down. The fire service ought to take the lead and provide training on these issues beginning in NFPA Standard 1001. If we are to change the fire service culture, we have to teach recruits the proper way.
For more information, go to www.nvfc.org