An unexpected study in firefighter harassment

Left unchecked, harassing behavior will erode fire department morale and contribute to the firefighter suicide problem

When my male German shepherd was a puppy, our yard had three adjoining neighbors – two had a dog, one did not. Each time we let Franz out, he’d spring over the fence into one of the two neighbors’ yards.

He’d strut around, bark, loose his bowels and bladder, and when finished, wait for one of us to collect him. The neighbor without a dog was spared such uninvited visits. The other two neighbors were not pleased.

After a few failed fixes, we had a very tall and very expensive fence installed – we lovingly called it our prison fence.

The desire to dominate others may be the nature of the breed.
The desire to dominate others may be the nature of the breed. (Photo/Jean Markley)

To some extent, Franz’s need to claim territory and show dominance over his fellow hounds was the nature of the breed.

I thought of Franz when the I read the report out of Japan about harassment and bullying in their fire service. Unlike German shepherds, the Japanese have earned a reputation of being polite, respectful and kind people.

So, the survey results were somewhat alarming. Thirty-eight percent of their female firefighters said they’d experienced sexual harassment in the past year. And, 17 percent of the male firefighters said they’d been subjected to power harassment.

What makes this survey significant is that it was conducted nationwide. They surveyed 4,000 firefighters – 3,200 men and 800 women – across 733 fire departments.

The Japanese survey results coincided with a separate report where an investigation determined that a 20-year-old firefighter died by suicide due to harassing treatment he was subjected to.

American study

A study from April 2016 looked at bullying and harassment in the U.S. fire service. Those results showed the problem to be less prevalent than some might imagine. Those researchers asked the same questions about gender and race equality as did a 2008 survey, and compared those results.

They found less respondents thought bullying was an issue in the fire service than did so in 2008. That’s good news, but the results tilt when you account for gender. Significantly more women than men reported issues related to race, gender and sexual orientation.

The April 2016 survey had only 113 responses, and those were from people who self-selected. That means the survey was open to all firefighters and only those who saw it and were moved to complete it did so. Those who self-select generally have an interest in the topic and can skew the results, versus a random sample of the population that may or may not have strong feelings about a topic.

What the Japanese survey results say to me is that bullying and harassing behavior runs deeper than an Asian problem, an American problem or a fire service problem.

It is a human problem. It’s that instinct we have, especially men, to dominate others.

And there’s a real difference between being tough on someone for their own good or for the good of the mission and being tough simply to exert power over them. The first has real value in the fire service; the other has no place in it.

The surveys out of the U.S. and Japan support what we already know – that harassment is not as rampant as cancer. Yet, not sorted out, it is often just as deadly. It leads to an erosion of fire department culture and trust, and at times, suicide.

It’s easy to recognize power harassing or bullying in others, whether as the subject or an observer of it. It’s far more difficult to recognize it in ourselves; that requires constant, honest self-evaluation.

The desire to dominate others may be the nature of the breed, waiting to hop the fence and pee in another’s yard. But that doesn’t make it acceptable or inevitable.

There aren’t shock-collar or tall-fence engineering solutions like there are for curbing German shepherds. There are good leadership practices and a commitment by peers to watch out for one another and control their own behavior. 

Bullying at the Fire Station? Perceptions Based on Gender, Race and Sexual Orientation

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