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Are assaults, harassment and gender discrimination still prevalent in the fire service?

Survey finds 86% of female firefighters had been assaulted or know someone else who had been assaulted during fire/EMS work

Circle from wooden figures and red figure. Discrimination or harassment concept.

Circle from wooden figures and red figure. Discrimination or harassment concept.

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I joined the fire service in 2017 as a part-time firefighter and EMT-Basic. I quickly fell in love with the profession and all that it had to offer and decided to continue my education to become a paramedic. But after a few years in the fire service, I started to become puzzled by the paradox of loving a career where I was able to serve my community while also being stuck in an environment that seemed like it was designed for me to fail.

I’ve written about my experience throughout the probationary period and taking a stand against sexual harassment in the workplace. What I didn’t discuss back then was that behind those articles was a woman who was facing sexual harassment herself. What’s more, when I tried to address my experience with former leaders, I was ignored, and the courage I had built in the months leading up to reporting was destroyed. I decided to let it go but quickly learned that sexual harassment and assault within the fire service extended far beyond my own experience.

After having the opportunity to speak with a handful of women over the last couple years, I was curious about how many others had faced similar harassment. This curiosity, coupled with a drive to make a difference in the fire service, turned into a capstone project at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. I created an anonymous survey titled “Workplace Culture: Standards of Interactions in Public Safety Professions” to evaluate the prevalence of sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and assault in the fire service. The first half of the survey focused on workplace culture and climate; the second half focused on harassment, discrimination and assault. Just over 300 current and former firefighters and/or EMS personnel took the survey.

Key findings: Workplace culture

Here’s what I found, each finding reflecting statistically significant differences between male and female respondents:

  • Women were more likely than men to feel anxious about returning to work based on how they were treated by their coworkers;

  • Women were more likely to think about resignation during their probationary periods;

  • Women were more likely witness comments and behaviors that make them and others uncomfortable.

  • Women were less likely to believe their workplaces had a well-known sexual harassment policy;

I wasn’t surprised by these findings, and I think it further shows that women aren’t as welcomed and supported as their male counterparts when beginning their fire service careers. This makes for a difficult probationary period, and the emotional toll can limit the success of the female employee.

Key findings: Harassment, discrimination and assault

The following five yes or no statements specifically targeted harassment, discrimination and assault. Each question was supplemented with an explanation box where participants had the option to elaborate on their experiences.

1.“I feel comfortable reporting incidents of harassment and discrimination to my employer.”

Only 54% of women reported feeling comfortable reporting incidents of harassment and discrimination to their employer compared to 89% of men.

Participant responses:

“Certain supervisors openly participate in inappropriate commentary or joke when concerns are brought forward.”

“Action will be taken to address the situation, but the time taken to address the situation is obscene, as a few months will go by before the offender is approached.”

“I feel comfortable reporting incidents to my direct supervisor (DC) and division supervisor. All of our department employees have been told we are NOT to speak to the HR director until we follow chain-of-command. This has effectively closed the HR ‘open- door-policy’ for reporting within our organization.”

2. “I have reported sexual harassment or discrimination to my employer in the past.”

46% of women said they have reported sexual harassment to their employers in the past compared to only 17% of their male counterparts.

Participant responses:

“I have spoken with a trusted company officer who reported the incident. The offender was terminated, but the reporting party quit due to being uncomfortable in her work environment from the reporting.”

“… After the incident, personnel in the field knew verbatim what was said in our ‘confidentiality’ statements. There was no confidentiality and side comments were made about throwing a brother under the bus and the discrimination was overlooked with – if you’re too soft, then leave the field.”

“And got retaliated against for doing so.”

3. “If you had to report an incident in the past, do you feel it was handled appropriately?”

Of the 46% of women who responded yes to the previous question, only 20% of them thought their incident was handled appropriately by administration.

Participant responses:

“I witnessed backlash. Union involvement makes it worse. I have NEVER seen an incident stay confidential. Administrative staff and board talk about incidents disregarding any confidentiality.”

“There was clearly a procedure in place to do an initial investigation and then zero follow-up. I couldn’t tell you what the outcome even looked like.”

“In the past, I have [reported incidents of sexual harassment or discrimination] and was branded as the ‘loudmouth.’ Another female reported an incident, case was dismissed by HR, she was forced out and the person accused became the fire chief.”

4. “Have you or someone you know ever experienced verbal harassment by a colleague while working a public safety profession?”

83% of all participants had either experienced or witnessed verbal harassment by a colleague while working a public safety profession.

Participant responses:

“This is commonplace”

“Comments in previous firehouse settings included women are only good in the kitchen or bedroom, constant sexual jokes, regular comments of inappropriate nature.”

“Lieutenants who use aggressive micromanagement and criticism to motivate.”

5. “Have you or someone you know ever been inappropriately touched by a colleague while working a public safety profession?”

A shocking 86% of female survey participants indicated that they had been assaulted or known someone who was assaulted while working their fire/EMS job.

Participant responses:

“A colleague put his hand down my pants during a medical call.”

“During a training exercise, another member played the patient and ‘pretended’ to be a dementia patient and was very handsy and inappropriately touching me. They claimed I needed to be ready to deal with that scenario. I feel they had no reason to act it out, and it made me very uncomfortable and lost confidence in my team having my back.”

“Inappropriate touching from behind in a sexual manner that was not expected and advances which were made very clear in the past were unwanted on multiple occasions.”

“Years ago, as a firefighter/paramedic, I was pushed up against a table as a coworker walked past me. He then put one hand on either side of me and proceeded to grind himself up against my backside. There were other employees around who were completely astonished and didn’t know what to say. So, no one said anything and the the man who did it made the comment, ‘well, that was fun, was it good for you?” I was mortified, violated, and felt humiliated. No one said anything but he was laughing and then just walked away. It bothers me to this day.”

Key takeaways

Let’s consider the common threads revealed through this study as well as how we can make headway to change the fire service culture and eliminate such inappropriate actions.

1. Barriers to reporting and length of investigations: Not having an open-door policy and restricting who employees can report to creates an unfair barrier to reporting these incidents. Allowing employees to report incidents to a trusted company officer can help eliminate some of these barriers and encourage future reporting.

Another common concern involved the length of time to investigate a report. As soon as a complaint of harassment, discrimination or assault hits your desk, you should be working to address it. Waiting to investigate the situation could place your employee in an unsafe situation, subjecting them to future sexual harassment or assault.

Not only will recollection of the reported incident be fresher and more accurate by the reporter, the witnesses and the person accused, it also shows your employees that you are taking the report seriously and that it’s one of your top priorities.

2. Lack of confidentiality and fears of retaliation: Participants mentioned that lack of confidentiality created an untrustworthy relationship between the department’s administration and the reporting employee. Breech of confidentiality prevents future (and likely worse) incidents from being reported.

Though illegal, retaliation (or the fear of retaliation) was reported among many individuals. Protecting those who come forward with complaints should be your number one goal. If an employee reports that he/she was retaliated against for reporting something, it is your responsibility to address it.

Keeping investigations confidential and having repercussions if confidentiality is broken or retaliation is experienced protects not only the reporting party from humiliation and retaliation, but also the department from potential legal liability.

3. Lack of accountability and action: 35 people commented on how they believe their reports were mishandled, and results of the open-ended responses showed that it’s not uncommon for the perpetrator to be rewarded (promoted) and the victim be punished (fired or pushed out of their jobs) following inappropriate workplace behavior. When making promotion decisions, it’s important to consider history of inappropriate workplace behaviors. By promoting someone with a history of reported harassment or discrimination, you are sending a message to all your employees that this behavior is acceptable or even encouraged.

Once an investigation is concluded, a follow-up conversation with the reporting party should be conducted, even if the results that the reporting party sought differ from your decision as an agency. This shows that you took the time to investigate the situation, questioned those involved, and came to an appropriate decision. This can help eliminate the feeling that you “didn’t do anything” or didn’t take the situation seriously.

Final thoughts

While there has been improvement in workplace culture over the last several years, the incidents described above are still happening in firehouses around the country. I know this to be true because it has happened to me, it’s happened to women I have worked with, and it’s happening to the women who participated in this study.

If you’re reading this and have gone through a similar experience, I want you to know that you’re not alone; there are hundreds of other people with stories like yours. You worked hard to get where you are, and you deserve to be here.

Access to the scholarly reviewed and published journal can be found here.

Shelby Perket started in the fire service in 2017 as an EMT-B on a volunteer department. She later completed Firefighter 1, Firefighter 2 and Paramedic through local technical colleges and began to explore careers in the fire service. Perket then worked for a fire department where she was an active member on multiple department committees and assisted with the training of new hires. She graduated with her bachelor’s degree in 2022, having completed a research project on harassment, discrimination and assault in the fire service. Currently, she’s completing her degree of Master in Physician Assistant Studies and plans to return to fire/EMS on a volunteer basis after graduation.
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