Ohio city female FFs: 'We're not being harassed'
Toledo female firefighters are speaking out after several complaints and legal issues have surfaced over the years concerning gender and racial discrimination
By Kaitlin Durbin
The Blade, Toledo, Ohio
TOLEDO, Ohio — Amid accusations of gender discrimination within Toledo’s fire department, several female firefighters are speaking out to refute claims of a hostile or gender-biased department.
They worry that a 14-year-old discrimination and retaliation lawsuit involving former and current Toledo firefighters Capt. Carla Stachura and Pvts. Judi Imhoff and Geraldine McCalland, which goes to trial Friday, along with three other discrimination complaints moving through the Ohio Civil Rights Commission, are giving the impression that gender discrimination is rampant at the fire department. They’ve repeatedly been asked about it by their families and members of the community.
But that has not been the shared experience of the roughly 55 other female firefighters who work in the department, according to 11 women firefighters who met with The Blade Wednesday.
“Were they wronged? That’s not for me to say,” Lt. Tammy Powell said of her colleagues’ allegations. “They may feel wronged, but we have not experienced that.”
The group said it doesn’t want the personal experiences of a few to represent the whole.
“We all know the truth that we’re not being harassed,” Lieutenant Powell, a 19-year firefighter, said, motioning to the other women around the table. “It’s personality conflicts, not gender, and people need to know the difference.”
The discrimination complaints involving Ms. Stachura, Private Imhoff, and Ms. McCalland have a long history.
From left, Carla Stachura, Geraldine McCalland and Judi Imhoff.THE BLADE
Their lawsuit was first filed in November 2005, dismissed, and then refiled in July 2015. It alleges that former Chiefs Michael Bell and Michael Wolever, along with former Deputy Chiefs John Coleman and Robert Metzger, discriminated and retaliated against the women based on their gender, which created hostile work conditions.
Ms. Stachura, who retired as a captain in 2008, alleges that the chiefs allowed and encouraged subordinate personnel to be abusive and condescending, and to use derogatory language to describe women, such as referring to a disagreement as a “cat fight” and one person’s statement that, “a woman is like a computer, sometimes helpful, but mostly just makes you mad,” the lawsuit said.
Ms. McCalland, a retired firefighter whose recruit class was the first to hire women, says she was forced to work with an officer who made her feel unsafe and was penalized for taking sick leave.
Private Imhoff, a 25-year firefighter who remains on active duty, alleges that male firefighters made repeated derogatory and racial comments and left magazines with offensive pictures on her bed and in other areas throughout the station where she would see them. She also was retaliated against for objecting to an officer using the term “men” to address the room of staff, including herself, the lawsuit said.
The case first went to trial April but was rescheduled after Ms. Stachura suffered a medical emergency. Judge Linda Jennings, who presided over that first trial, will again hear the case. Opening statements are scheduled to begin Friday morning, with all three plaintiffs testifying.
Other accusations of sexual discrimination in the department have surfaced more recently.
The Ohio Civil Rights Commission this summer found that Karen Marquardt, the department’s first female assistant chief, a position she held for four years, was likely denied a promotion to chief and later harassed because of her gender. The title was awarded to the current chief, Brian Byrd.
The commission also found probable cause that the department subjected Lt. Kari Gonzalez to differential treatment and retaliation based on her gender and discriminated against female Battalion Chief Sally Glombowski when moving her to a different position within the department and holding her “to a stricter standard of evaluation.”
The cases involving Chief Marquardt and Lieutenant Gonzalez are being reviewed by the Ohio Attorney General’s Office. The OCRC has not yet filed a complaint in Chief Glombowski’s case, meaning conciliation attempts with the city may still be ongoing.
Former fire recruit Sierra Adebisi also recently alleged racial and gender discrimination after she was terminated from the department hours before the rest of her academy class graduated. The city cited a number of documented infractions in her termination.
‘I stand with Chief Byrd’
Chief Byrd has denied that any form of discrimination exists within the department, a position that has been supported by male and female employees alike, more than 70 of whom have displayed “I stand with Chief Byrd” illustrations on their Facebook pages.
The group of female firefighters doubled down on that message on Wednesday.
Responding to the most recent claims of discrimination and retaliatory staffing changes made by Ms. Marquardt, Ms. Gonzalez, and Ms. Glombowski, the 11 women agreed that they would have made the same staffing changes as Chief Byrd.
“I worked with all three of them and gender, and age has nothing to do with it,” said Barb Aldrich, a 33-year firefighter who retired in 2017.
“It has to do with whether you can do the job or not,” Pvt. Taryn Kirk said.
The woman cited the promotions last month of female battalion chiefs Holly Bennett and Allison Armstrong as evidence of Chief Byrd’s support of women in the department. And they argued that workplace culture and morale has actually improved under Chief Byrd’s leadership.
“We begged him to be our chief,” Pvt. Sarah Rowe said.
The group also disagreed with allegations that recently promoted battalion chief Daniel Brown-Martinez is biased against women, an accusation raised in Ms. Marquardt’s discrimination complaint. They called Chief Brown-Martinez an ally for women in the department and recalled several examples of how he recruited women to join the profession and supported them afterward.
“If I’m having a hard day, I can call Danny. He’s there for us no matter what,” Private Kirk said.
The women also complained that the many allegations of wrongdoing have sent the department on a crusade toward political correctness that actually goes too far, inadvertently making them feel uncomfortable and separating them from their male counterparts in ways they weren’t before.
Within the last five years, the women said staff has been instructed not to refer to groups of mixed genders as “guys;” manpower became “people power;” all references to fireman must be converted to “firefighter.”
“Doing that segregates us more, and we don’t want to be segregated,” Private Kirk said.
If a culture of discrimination against women existed at the department, they would be the first to voice their complaints, the women said, arguing about who would yell loudest. But allegations in six specific cases, which they view as personality conflicts rather than gender discrimination, is not representative of the workplace as a whole, they said.
“I’m not afraid to speak up,” Lieutenant Powell said. “There just hasn’t been a reason to.”
©2019 The Blade (Toledo, Ohio)