Harassment Inside The Fire Hall – It’s A Fire That Is Hard To Put Out 

It sounds like female fire fighters are safer when they are fighting fires rather than waiting inside the fire hall for the next alarm to ring.

In Canada there are over 22,000 professional firefighters keeping the communities where they serve safe and sound.

Right now as I write this from the comfort of my office, there is a fire hall just down the street that I look at as being a place of refuge – a place that I could go to or call upon if I needed help.

Apparently that is not necessarily the case for many of the 3% of the firefighting population that are female.

Last week, the CBC aired an incredible documentary via their The Fifth Estate series which highlighted the struggles that are faced regularly by many of the those female firefighters. The fact that there was not one interviewee whose face was shown on air who is still in the profession, is perhaps a strong statement about how difficult the culture is.

There were several communities highlighted within the documentary: Fort St. James (where the fired fire chief has recently been found guilty of three counts of sexual assault) and Richmond, British Columbia as well as Calgary, Alberta and others across the country.

One woman, who is still working as a firefighter, agreed only to be interviewed on the condition of anonymity. She says that a senior firefighter in her fire hall began helping her out when she was new. Unfortunately, it soon turned into something much different.

“He would send me very detailed … text messages about certain things that were sex-related,” she says. “And it continued and continued, and it just got worse and worse,”

until the point where he forced himself on her, she said, in the fire hall dorm. The fifth estate talked to dozens of female firefighters across the country who have had similar experiences and say that they are suffering in silence, and that something needs to change.

I wrote  a few months back which highlighted a story from down under regarding the sexual harassment found to be going on within a fire department in Queensland. 

But the culture of sexual harassment within the fire service profession is obviously not confined to Australia and Canada

Female Fire Fighters Harassment in Britain

A recent case from the United Kingdom highlights the fact that it’s in many other countries as well.

In the UK in 1999 the Fire Service Inspectorate released a comprehensive report which summarized the status of equal opportunity issues in the British fire service.

The Inspectorate is a government agency responsible for assessing how fire brigades in England and Wales are “discharging their functions… and meeting their responsibilities” under the law.

Its report, entitled “Equality and Fairness in the Fire Service: Founding a Cultural Equality,” was the result of months of study and discussion via questionnaires, interviews, and visits by inspection teams to ten fire brigades.

While praising the quality of service provided by the nation’s fire brigades, the report was highly critical of the status given to equality and fairness issues within those brigades. It found in general, an absence of appreciation at any but the highest levels, of the benefits which would accrue to the service and the community from advancement of equality and fairness in the fire service. The only focus recognized was the need to respond to political and governmental initiatives relating to racial or gender equality. Any drive in this direction was often seen as little more than “political correctness.”

The report calls for a sweeping change in the culture of the fire service in order to address institutionalized sexism: 

The culture should change to allow women to be valued for the contribution they can make to the job as well as maintaining that they can, and should be different, as women. This requires affording them facilities that recognize and enable differences to be dealt with, with dignity as a right, and not a privilege. These facilities can be as simple as providing uniform items suitable for the shape or size of women or requir(ing) building works or reallocation of existing facilities, to provide toilet, shower or locker rooms.

The conclusion of the report was that in the main, only lip service has been given to these needs and that a real and determined commitment is now necessary.

Changing the culture of a profession is hard…some would say almost impossible.

But there are those who disagree and when those who take a stand are in positions of authority, and they are out there. In fact, I had lunch with one such leader just yesterday.

The cultural change requires intense focus on five areas:

  1. Top Leadership Commitment
  2. Monitoring and accountability for managers
  3. Transparent and objective Human Resource processes
  4. Training to change individual behaviour
  5. Sustained effort for 3 to 5 years

Far more than just “lip service.”