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The special obligation of male firefighters to stop sexual harassment in the fire service

Too many male firefighters are still not listening, especially when the message is coming from a woman


From where I sit, it’s clear that too many male firefighters are still not listening and getting the message – and they’re really not listening when the speaker or author is a woman.

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Want to commit the perfect crime? A former law enforcement colleague of mine told me that if you want to commit a crime and get away with it, then do it yourself and never tell anyone about it. Ever.

“As soon as there’s a second person involved, our chances of catching you increases by about 90%, because people talk,” he explained.

Translation to our discussion of firefighter harassment: No firefighter sexually harasses (or worse) another firefighter without somebody else knowing about it.

Regardless of the size or composition of any fire department (big, small; career, volunteer, combination), everyone knows everyone else’s business, especially at the station level. And the “juicier” the gossip, the faster fire department members outside the fire station learn about it. Firefighters are people, and people talk, especially about other people.

The problem of the ‘dominant group’

In her recent article, “Ending harassment in the fire service is everyone’s responsibility,” Linda Willing wrote: “And harassment isn’t just one thing. It is most often a pattern of inappropriate behavior that may occur and change over a long period of time. What might be rationalized at first as rite-of-passage testing or teasing can become long-term degradation and humiliation. It can happen so gradually that even the target may not see it clearly. And if everyone else around that person acts like the behavior is normal, it can be hard to step up and identify it any other way.”

I couldn’t agree more with that statement, as well as the rest of Willing’s article. Further, several women in fire service leadership roles have shared their personal stories to shed light on this issue. I applaud them for speaking out about the sexual harassment of female firefighters by their male colleagues and offering their well-thought-out solutions for the problem.

But we’ve been dealing with this stain on the fire service for too many years. From where I sit, it’s clear that too many male firefighters are still not listening and getting the message – and they’re really not listening when the speaker or author is a woman. So, while I agree with Willing’s premise that ending sexual harassment in the fire service is everyone’s responsibility, I don’t believe that enough men in the fire service are “all in.”

As women still account for just 4% of firefighter positions in the U.S., it begs the question, “why aren’t fire departments getting better at inclusion?” In that piece, I wrote: “In most fire departments, the dominant group [looking strictly at numbers] is comprised of white males, and that dominant group has written the department’s rules, regulations and procedures. And they’ve created all the cultural elements that goes along with those formal documents (e.g., patches, slogans, work practices, and yes, even hazing). All of which – as with any organization – serve as controls to ensure that the dominant group remains the dominant group.”

So, logic would have it that the dominant group has a special obligation to take greater responsibility for making the necessary changes to draw and retain more women (the non-dominant group, strictly by numbers) in its fire department. But more importantly, it’s critical that those women feel safe and secure in the fire station environment, especially when they might be the only female firefighter or one of only a few.

When the dominant group does not exercise “good governance,” particularly ridding the workplace of sexually harassing behavior, it enables rogue behaviors that can ultimately perpetrate a culture of sexual harassment, as well as sexual assault, including rape, on their female firefighter cohorts.

Defining sexual harassment and sexually harassing behavior

So, where can men begin if they want to be proactive about their role in ending harassment? First, they must understand exactly what it is.

In “Understanding, Preventing & Responding to Sexual Harassment in the Fire Service,” fire service legal expert Deputy Chief Curt Varone explains that sexual harassment may include unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature. There are two types of sexual harassment:

  1. Quid pro quo sexual harassment occurs when an employee’s submission to or rejection of sexual advances is used as the basis for employment decisions or when submission to sexual conduct is a condition of employment.
  2. Hostile environment sexual harassment occurs when unwelcome sexual conduct unreasonably interferes with an employee’s job performance or creates a hostile, intimidating or offensive work environment. In order to interfere with an employee’s job performance, the offensive behavior must be “severe and pervasive” from both an objective and subjective perspective. The legal bar to establish hostile work environment sexual harassment is quite high.

It’s important to acknowledge that while such harassment does occur in the fire service, an even more common experience is called “sexually harassing behavior” – behavior that is inappropriate and should result in discipline of the perpetrators but may not in and of itself meet the legal criteria for sexual harassment, especially if it occurs only once. A key problem here: While most fire departments have policies that prohibit sexual harassment, not all fire departments prohibit sexually harassing behavior.

Following are some examples of sexually harassing behavior that Varone compiled from researching civil court cases:

  • Showing a “graphic, offensive, and prurient film” in the station
  • Circulating revenge porn involving a sexually explicit video of a firefighter
  • Taking lewd photos of a firefighter without their consent
  • Sending a firefighter sexually suggestive text messages
  • Editing images of a firefighter to incorporate sexual imagery
  • Spreading rumors about a firefighter’s sexual conduct
  • Rubbing against a firefighter’s buttocks as they bend over

Note: Some of these actions could also constitute criminal offenses. Get the full list in Varone’s Q&A about sexual harassment in the fire service.

Be courageous: Speak up

In a speech many years ago at a National Fire Academy graduation ceremony, then-NFA superintendent Dr. Denis Onieal, said: “Bravery and courage are not the same thing. Bravery is when you’re first-in on a house fire and you arrive to find frantic mother telling you one of her kids is still inside. Your brain goes into that fight or flight mode and you do what needs to be done, sometimes at great risk to yourself, to try to save a life. Courage is more subtle because, in many cases, you have time to think and assess. Especially what the potential consequences might be for your actions …. But the courageous person is he or she who makes the choice they know in their heart to be right.”

If you want to stop or prevent the firefighters in your department from experiencing sexually harassing behavior, here’s a good place to start: If you see a firefighter who is engaging in sexually harassing behavior toward, or around, a member of your department (or any department for that matter), exercise courage and step in and tell them to stop. Do it loud. Do it in front of other people if possible. But the bottom line is to act.

Firefighters who engage in sexually harassing behavior are another species of bully. Like any other species of bully, they operate in the shadows. And right now, too many of these harassing bullies are getting away with it because other members are unwilling to pull back the curtains and let the sun shine on these vampires.

Yes, vampires. These “brothers” are vampires that suck the spirit from their victims. They suck the spirit and camaraderie out of the fire station, and they suck the organization’s reputation and integrity dry.

And yes, I know that there’s much more that any fire department must do to end systemic sexism and misogyny within its ranks. However, small but powerful actions by departmental members of the dominant group are needed to start laying the foundation for addressing the more complex systemic solutions.

Men, do you want to stop sexually harassing behavior in your fire department? Then stop providing cover for men who do!

Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Virginia) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an instructor for fire, EMS and hazardous materials courses at the local, state and federal levels, which included more than 10 years with the National Fire Academy. Chief Avsec earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master’s degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy’s EFO Program. Beyond his writing for and, Avsec authors the blog Talking “Shop” 4 Fire & EMS and has published his first book, “Successful Transformational Change in a Fire and EMS Department: How a Focused Team Created a Revenue Recovery Program in Six Months – From Scratch.” Connect with Avsec on LinkedIn or via email.