A Little Respect Goes a Long Way

By Jason Zigmont  

Respect should be a given in any workplace — and the same goes for any fire department. Unfortunately in the fire service we have some bad habits that may not be respectful. These habits, including hazing and disrespect of certain groups, may not only be inappropriate but also illegal. Volunteer departments can be liable if the lack of respect creates a hostile work environment, discriminates or leads to sexual harassment.

I recently received this e-mail that drove home what still goes on in many departments:

I enjoy receiving your monthly topics. I am currently president of a volunteer fire department in upstate New York, about 25 miles from the Canadian border. I have even printed off some of these topics and handed them out at our monthly meetings. One topic I would like to see you write about is departments having female members. I myself am one of eight active female members we currently have in our department. We have had some friction between our younger male firefighters/EMS personnel and the female members. Some of our younger members think our female members should only work functions or hold an office.

I would love to say that this is an oddity, but I have heard it from other departments, if not in the same format. I have had e-mails from women who tried to apply to be a firefighter and were told they could only be part of the Women's Auxiliary or forced to go into EMS only.

I have had others from people who were hazed so brutally they quit. Others have to fight every day to be accepted, and are only still members by their own personal willpower and strength. In addition to being wrong, all of these activities can be illegal and open your department up to potential litigation.

Membership and promotion within a department should be based solely upon the ability to do the task. I have worked and volunteered with big guys who could barely lift a pack, and with gals who are half my size who could lift me. Unfortunately most departments do not have a fitness or knowledge exam, but we can prove ourselves on the fireground. I do not care what anyone's sex, orientation or nationality is as long as they can do the job. The key is not to make any assumptions about ability based on surface features.

Equality means everyone is treated equally no matter who they are. This means not only do we have to accept them as members, but allow them to be promoted or move up in the organization both on the fireground and social side. If someone wants to only be involved in fundraising, or not be on the fireground for any reason, that is their choice, not yours.

Additionally, members have to feel comfortable both on and off the fireground no matter who they are. Fire departments have a lengthy history in hazing, to the point where you are not accepted unless you take the hazing well. Some departments go so far as that you can tell they dislike a member because they don't haze them.

A hostile work environment can be defined as, "One that both a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive and one that a particular person who is the object of the harassment perceives to be hostile or abusive. Hostile work environment is determined by looking at all of the circumstances, including the frequency of the allegedly harassing conduct, its severity, whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee's work performance."

Unfortunately, our habits of hazing, especially of "probies" and those who "do not fit" would fit the definition of a hostile work environment. Even though we are volunteer, we still have to make an effort to prevent a hostile work environment and sexual harassment or bias. Besides the fact that we may be creating a hostile work environment, we are also potentially losing members — and that is something we cannot afford.

Respect is cheap, but important. Every member or potential member needs to receive the same respect and opportunities for advancement. It is not only the right thing to do, but the legal thing to do.

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