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Fire service sexual harassment: Stop gaslighting women, start taking it seriously

The statistics on sexual harassment and assault in the fire service are alarming and demand we do more than just annual online training


“Annual sexual harassment trainings are not enough,” writes Perket.

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The fire service is shifting from a male-dominated career field to a more gender-inclusive environment … or so we think. More and more women are being onboarded to fire departments around the country, which looks great from a data point of view. However, getting an offer, pushing through a tough academy, and adapting to the physical and mental challenges the job demands is the easy part.

An all-too-common story of dismissal

I often find myself looking back to even just a few months ago, and I have realized that since Day 1 of being involved in the fire service, I have been conditioned to look the other way in the presence of harassment – even my own.

As women we’re told, “If you want to play with the boys, you have to act like the boys” and that “it’s just the culture of the firehouse” when, in reality, this is a major problem that impacts many female firefighters around the country. I had been conditioned to believe that the things that are often said (or done), both on and off shift, are part of this job – but they shouldn’t be a part of any job.

I started to open my eyes to the things being said to me on shift and began to reflect on the past few years of my career. I began to really listen when others would share stories of the types of things that were said or done to them while they were on shift – and the examples of this are endless.

It’s a story I hear all too often: A woman reports an incident, the incident is “investigated,” then the incident is dropped. The woman is presented with feedback, such as “I don’t have time for personnel issues” and “maybe if you weren’t so nice, you wouldn’t have these problems.”

I’ve seen this happen more than once to people other than myself. The woman feels uncomfortable, the woman reports it, and oftentimes the issue is swept under the rug. The woman feels her concerns aren’t valid (when they most definitely are), and is then reluctant to report future incidents that are often worse in nature.

This is why so few women report sexual harassment or employee conflict cases.

Staggering statistics

I began to do some research to see if there had been any studies on sexual harassment experienced by women in the fire service, because I knew this was far too common than anyone would like to admit. What I found was heartbreaking.

Hulett and associates completed a study involving both male and female firefighters. Of those that participated, 457 of them were female. Their results involving women in the fire service are illustrated below.

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Of the 457 female firefighters interviewed, 84.7% stated they had experienced different treatment based on gender, 50.8% reported isolation and exclusion on the job, 42.9% experienced verbal harassment, 30.2% experienced sexual advances, and 6.3% experienced sexual assault.

For that final statistic, 6.3% translates to 29 women who experienced sexual assault on the job. Absolutely no one should have to worry about being sexually assaulted on the job, yet there are many women who have survived this experience.

This study only interviewed 457 women in the fire service. Imagine if every single firefighter was interviewed across the United States. According to Women in Fire, 6,200 women currently work as firefighters in the United States. Extrapolating from the study above, if 6.3% is indeed an accurate representation, then approximately 390 of your sister firefighters have experienced sexual assault while on duty.

Is this alarming yet? Because it should be.

Further, it is believed that only 15.8-35% of assaults are actually reported among all Americans. So remember that the statistics from this study include those women who felt brave enough to admit to the horrific things that were done to them, so it’s likely the 6.3% statistic is much lower than what it might really be if all female firefighters reported their assaults.

“It was just a joke”

The health and safety of your department’s employees should be everyone’s top priority, yet when it comes to employee conflicts and complaints of sexual harassment, we often look the other direction. We cover it up with comments like, “Oh come on, it was just a joke,” “maybe you shouldn’t be so sensitive” or “I didn’t mean it; it was just funny.”

Such responses, such behavior is gaslighting women, forcing them to believe that this behavior is normal and that they’re overreacting. It forces women to be desensitized to this type of behavior, further contributing to why so many incidents go unreported.

What can we do?

Annual sexual harassment trainings are not enough. Every year we sit down in front of our computers for about an hour to complete the mandatory sexual harassment training. It’s the same one we have to complete every single year, and we click through the slides to get it over with. Once the training is done, we don’t think about sexual harassment until the next year’s training.

This is not enough.

We need to hold each other accountable for our actions.

We need to start standing up for one another.

We need to start normalizing conversations around these topics.

We NEED to take complaints seriously, and we NEED to handle them appropriately.

All workplaces should be harassment-free. Is yours?

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.