Fire service harassment is about leadership

Ending harassment within a fire department is simple and fully with in a fire chief's control

In light of recent events, I have been asked more than once about my own experience with harassment as a young firefighter.

I became a firefighter in 1980 — a long time ago — and back then there were very few women doing the job. There were also almost no laws on the books making workplace harassment illegal.

Yet in my first two years on the job, I can only think of a few incidents that I would label as harassment. Here are three.

  • A lieutenant I had never worked with before got me alone in the station and asked me explicit questions about my personal life, including sexual activity. When I politely refused to answer, he berated me for being "unfriendly" and "not a team player."
  • A lieutenant working overtime in my station deliberately humiliated me in front of my regular crew when performing routine maintenance.
  • An officer I had only worked for a few times as a firefighter refused to allow me to drive for him when I was assigned to do so, and arranged for me to be moved to a different station for the day.

Do you notice a pattern here?

Every overt act of inappropriate behavior directed at me was done by an officer. It was also done by someone who did not know me well.

I am sure there were firefighters and drivers who did not like me or feel comfortable working with me in those early years. But none of them felt empowered to act out publicly based on those feelings unless their officers set the standard that such behavior was acceptable.

One solution
I was lucky. I had good regular officers during my first few years on the job. Some of those men were actively supportive to me. Some were just neutral.

But all of my assigned officers accepted me as part of their crew, and so did the rest of the members, whether they were actually happy about it or not.

Those officers set a standard of professionalism and appropriate behavior that their subordinates would not dare to violate, at least not blatantly.

Those officers also allowed themselves to get to know me as a person. And it is a lot harder to mistreat someone you actually know.

A lot of people agonize over how to stop workplace harassment. But the solution is simple. It's leadership — always has been, always will be.

Harassment is a behavior, and leaders set standards for behavior. They do this through enforcement of official policy. But mostly they do this through the example of their own actions and their own words.

Lead by example
If firefighters see their officers consistently behaving in a professional, respectful way toward all crew members and the people they serve, those firefighters will understand that such behavior is the expected standard, and will most often act accordingly, regardless of how they might feel privately.

If a firefighter pushes the limits of acceptable behavior or violates policy, it is the officer's responsibility to notice this behavior and correct it immediately.

It is also the officer's responsibility to explain and demonstrate why fair and appropriate treatment of everyone is necessary.

It's not about being nice, although being nice is a good thing. It is not about so-called political correctness.

Instead, fair and respectful treatment of all is an underlying value that must be in place for the fire department to be able to do its job.

Emergency response is based on trust. Members of the community must trust first responders to treat them with skill and compassion as well as safeguarding their families and possessions.

Train and empower
Firefighters must trust one another to be able to do the job effectively when their lives are literally in the hands of their coworkers.

When harassment is occurring in the fire service, you can be sure that officers are not doing their jobs. Maybe they are the ones actually engaging in the harassing behavior.

Or maybe they have made it clear through their example that such behavior, while officially unacceptable, is really OK. Or maybe they are just deliberately looking the other way, not wanting to get involved or be the bad guy among their crew members.

In any of these cases, the solution is clear. Train and empower officers to establish and maintain high standards of professionalism among their crews.

Hold officers accountable for actions occurring under their watch. Actively support officers who are doing the right thing. Take direct action against those who are not.

If a fire department really wants to stop harassment, it must start from the top down. And that often includes taking a hard look in the mirror when moving forward.

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