Critics: Sexual harassment a big problem in Philly fire dept.

Some hope the scandal will spur changes aimed at squashing the sexism that keeps many women feeling unwelcome

Philadelphia Daily News

PHILADELPHIA — Having your boss unzip his pants and "adjust himself" in front of you should not be part of anyone's workday.

Neither should opening a desk drawer and discovering that a colleague has ejaculated all over its contents.

But these stomach-turning events — and others just as offensive — were not unusual for female members of the Philadelphia Fire Department, the Daily News has found.

Such incidents hint at larger ingrained problems — sexual harassment, discrimination and questionable relationships between supervisors and subordinates — that the department's leaders have ignored for years, critics say.

In fact, the Inspector General's Office referenced systemic issues in its investigation into allegations that 15 Fire Department employees had sexual encounters with or sexually harassed a mentally troubled female paramedic.

In a report given to city officials last month — but not publicly released — the I.G.'s office recommended seven men be disciplined, according to the city's union for firefighters and paramedics. The men now await disciplinary hearings.

Reformers hope the scandal, which has snagged headlines nationally, will spur changes aimed at squashing the sexism that keeps many women feeling unwelcome in city firehouses.

"We're hoping, in light of the seriousness of these allegations, that it is the impetus for change, and the union and the department can work together to affect comprehensive sexual-harassment policies and training departmentwide to reduce the risk of any of our members being treated without the respect that they deserve," said Joe Schulle, president of International Association of Fire Fighters Local 22.

Some were less optimistic.

Just 150, or 7 percent, of the department's 2,100 members are women.

Sexual harassment is an expected, everyday part of their job, many agree.

"If you want to hang with the boys, you have to just take the jokes and roll with the punches, the 'c'mon, baby' and 'you know you like it' comments," said one female paramedic, who asked that her name be withheld for fear of prompting further harassment.

Sandra Stewart, who went through the Fire Academy last year, agreed: "There was one instructor, a captain, who always used the word 'fireman.' One time, I said, 'Oh, you mean firefighter.' He looked me dead set in my face and said, 'No, I mean fireman.' "

Sexual harassment is probably more prevalent than lawsuits and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints suggest, because many women don't speak up about the boorish behavior they endure, said Marina Angel, a Temple University law professor who specializes in gender issues.

When they do - as the young paramedic who sparked the Inspector General probe did - they're often met with scorn and slurs, Angel said.

"The worst harassment usually takes place when there are very few women in an overwhelmingly male workplace, and that's the case with the Fire Department," she said.

"It's not about sex. It's about power. It's about telling these women, 'You don't belong in this workplace.' It's about being demeaning and telling the women 'You're nothing but a piece of horseflesh.' "

Fire Commissioner Derrick Sawyer declined to comment through mayoral spokesman Mark McDonald, who said: "The fire commissioner is not commenting on any situation or incident that could involve disciplinary hearings. But it is fair to say that if the commissioner and his team discerned a need for increased training, new policies or some other action, stemming from one or more incidents or related situations that ended up in a disciplinary hearing, he would consider his options once that hearing process had run its course." 

Three decades of bias
Almost as long as there have been women in Philadelphia's fire service, there have been charges of gender bias and harassment.

Dorothy Covey was one of the city's first female firefighters, joining the department in 1985. She got fired in 2005 and sued the city the following year, claiming her dismissal was retaliation for filing two previous complaints of sexual harassment and discrimination. That case settled for $74,400, court records show.

Few lawsuits have been as spectacular, though, as Katrina Northern's. In 1998, the ex-firefighter sued the city and then-Commissioner Harold Hairston, saying she was fired two years earlier because she was a black woman.

During the monthlong trial, one female ex-firefighter testified that her colleagues brought prostitutes into their West Philly station, while Northern testified that pornography was plentiful in many fire stations.

The city paid Northern $298,500 in June 2000 to settle, according to city records.

Sexual harassment has been such a pervasive problem in the Fire Department that it affected even Philly's most famous female firefighter.

Joyce Craig, who earned the tragic distinction of being Philly's first female firefighter to die on duty when she perished in a Dec. 9 basement blaze in West Oak Lane, filed an EEOC complaint against several of her male colleagues at North Philly's Engine 45 several years ago, a source said. Although her claims were investigated, no one was disciplined, a source said.

Harassment sometimes goes beyond the firehouse:

  • Randolph Waddell, an instructor at the Randolph Fire and EMS Training Center in East Falls, last year was transferred and suspended for 160 hours after he allegedly repeatedly propositioned a 19-year-old student there, sources said.
  • A woman kicked out of the Fire Academy in February 2014, two weeks shy of graduation, filed an EEOC complaint last summer alleging gender and age discrimination. Sandra Stewart, 41, said officials told her she failed to pass a skills course, even though she insists she did. Men who graduated in that class included a man so old everyone called him "Pop-Pop" and two others who failed the skills test - one overweight and another who used crutches throughout training because of a leg injury, Stewart said. The EEOC complaint remains unresolved. Stewart, who ran unsuccessfully as a Republican against Democrat Bobby Henon for the 6th District City Council seat in 2011, said she plans to sue. 

Hidden, pricey problem
Most incidents never make headlines, though, because EEOC proceedings are private, the details only becoming public if the complainant finds no relief through the EEOC and files a lawsuit.

Like Colleen Mitchell.

Soon after Mitchell was promoted to lieutenant, becoming the highest-ranking female officer on the department's fire side, she experienced "severe, pervasive and regular harassment and threats on the basis of her gender directed at her by male co-workers and supervisors," according to a federal lawsuit she filed in September 2003.

That included finding semen coating a photo album in her desk drawer, according to the lawsuit. She reported the harassment to her bosses, who failed to adequately discipline her co-workers and demoted her.

The case settled for $280,000, according to city records. Mitchell, who eventually left the department, declined to comment, saying the city forbade her from discussing the case as a settlement condition.

Confidentiality agreements cannot be required nor enforced when it comes to public payouts, according to the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association. But they are a common practice in city settlements, according to attorneys with experience suing the city, further ensuring the public won't learn of potentially systemic problems.

Two years after Mitchell's lawsuit, Lisa Jeter joined North Philly's Engine 34, fresh out of the Fire Academy.

On her first day, Jeter met the station's commanding officer, Robert Blanks. After a quick building tour, Blanks took Jeter to his office to complete personnel information.

That's when it started.

"You're a very attractive woman," Blanks repeatedly told Jeter, as he asked if she had a husband, boyfriend or children, according to a federal lawsuit Jeter filed against the city in 2008.

A month later, Jeter fell asleep on a sofa inside the station. Blanks plopped into a chair beside her, drifting to sleep as well. Soon after, he gave Jeter a glowing progress report - and asked for her phone number, the lawsuit alleged.

The chitchat and shared nap apparently weren't enough. Blanks began touching Jeter, grabbing her hands and ignoring her protests that she wanted to work without being sexually harassed, according to the lawsuit.

One day, Blanks "unbuttoned and unzipped his pants and adjusted himself" in front of her, Jeter alleged in her lawsuit. She requested a transfer the next day, but Blanks balked - and it was 10 weeks before Jeter got the transfer she so desperately wanted, the lawsuit stated.

Jeter reported Blanks' behavior to higher-ups - including then-Capt. Derrick Sawyer, whom Mayor Nutter appointed last summer as fire commissioner, the department's top post.

Despite a "zero-tolerance policy for harassment and discrimination," Sawyer "failed to promptly and/or effectively investigate and report Jeter's sexual harassment complaints," according to the lawsuit.

The city paid $90,000 to settle Jeter's lawsuit, according to the city records.

Jeter no longer works for the Fire Department, and did not respond to a request for comment. Blanks committed suicide in October 2012, according to the Medical Examiner's Office. At the time, he was under investigation for a separate matter, a source said. 

Changes needed
You might think the union's Joe Schulle would know all the dirty details of the latest sex scandal.

Instead, he had to file a right-to-know request for the Inspector General's report because city officials have refused to release it or name whom the I.G.'s office investigated beyond the seven members recommended for discipline. Only redacted portions of the report have been shared with the union.

In fact, case law suggests that the city is breaking the law by withholding the I.G.'s report from the union.

A 2011 ruling by the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board stated the city must give the union copies of the I.G.'s investigative reports so the union can sufficiently defend members facing discipline.

Union officials plan to file an unfair-labor-practice complaint this week over the withheld report, Schulle said.

Such secrecy is the first hurdle to fixing the Fire Department's gender problems, he added.

"There's really no justification to say, 'We won't give you the report,' unless there are things in the report you don't want us to see," Schulle said. "If the I.G. identified serious systemic problems in the department, how can you go and scapegoat these guys without addressing the systemic problems?"

McDonald, the mayor's spokesman, said the Law Department released to the union the portion of the Inspector General's report relating to each member who was recommended for discipline.

"Given the nature of this matter, there was a need to protect the privacy of those involved," he said. "So, if a Fire Department employee was not recommended for discipline, his or her portion of the I.G. report was not released."

Beyond the issue of transparency, Schulle said the department is long overdue for sensitivity training.

"How do you combat the bad behavior in the firehouse? The answer to that is really simple: You have to have training - really aggressive, proactive, annual, up-to-date training conducted by experts," Schulle said, adding that the last departmentwide EEOC training was in 2008.

"A lot of times, management will send out a general memo to the [battalion] chief and say, 'Train your people.' But the chief is not an expert on it. He's a battalion chief; he's an expert in fighting fires, not preventing sexual harassment," Schulle added.

Counseling also is key.

Chronic workplace sexual harassment can lead to a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, Temple University's Marina Angel said.

But the department's employee-assistance program is no refuge for women, many agree.

Men staff it - and they're firefighters and paramedics, not professionals trained in effective psychological counseling, one female paramedic said. Because it is part of the department, many members also don't trust that their sessions are kept confidential, Schulle added.

Such concerns prompted the union two years ago to create its own mental-health program, contracting Mental Health Consultants to counsel troubled firefighters and paramedics, Schulle said.

"The policies in place aren't strong enough," Angel agreed. "When the leadership is taking part where are you going to turn?" 

Wanted elsewhere
After getting booted out of the Fire Academy, Stewart moved from Tacony to Moorestown, N.J., disappointed that the city she loved didn't love her back.

She's now working in another male-dominated field, driving a delivery truck. Lately, she's been checking out the suburban fire departments, hoping to put her skills to work for someone who wants them.

"In Philly, I was constantly made to feel like a fish out of water, like I had some nerve being who I was and the age I was, going out for the Philadelphia Fire Department," Stewart said. "It's just a whole different atmosphere over here. People are encouraging over here, saying, 'We would love to have you!' "

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