Recently there was an article in the local newspaper regarding harassment charges brought forward by several women that work for a local and large, fire department. Some of those charges included the fact that there were not separate sleeping arrangements for men and women at a majority of the stations. The department I worked for has had women for over 35 years and while the going was rough at first, we now have dormitories with separate sleeping cubicles at all of the stations. There are no doors, only curtains, but I think you can see the increased privacy for each person.
When the first female was hired on my department, sliding locks were installed on the bathroom doors and on the dormitory doors. If individuals used the bathroom, shower, or the dorm for changing, the door was to be locked. All personnel were to adhere to this policy. Yes, we made some mistakes at first. In any new endeavor there are sure to be some. We learned from them, corrected them, made adjustments where necessary, and budgeted for station changes to accommodate the females we were hiring. When a station was refurbished, or a new one built, sleeping cubicles that included space for lockers were included in the original design. In some stations only the dorm was restructured to give all personnel a sleeping cubicle. But it worked and it did take time. More importantly, it took a commitment from fire administration with the city administrations support to accomplish this task.
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We continued to have education on harassment of any kind and the city has a zero tolerance policy to address issues that may arise. Okay, here is where I come clean. Since the beginning of time, if there are male and females working in the same environment, things are going to happen between them regardless of the policies. No one can stop it, but we as leaders can address it. We must make it known that this type of behavior, if uncovered (no pun) is not tolerated and then if something is brought to our attention, we have to deal with it appropriately. In any case, if there are any harassment charges, we as leaders must respect the person or persons bringing the charges forward. In the article I spoke of earlier, the mayor actually stated that he didn’t believe there were any problems on the fire department and there are always going to be whiners in any job. So, if you are a female and work for that department and believe you are being harassed then the mayor has already labeled you as a whiner and complainer if you bring those issues forward. How likely is anyone to speak out with that kind of attitude at the top? It is unfortunate that we still elect and appoint leaders who would fit better in the 1950’s than in today’s world.
While the mayor doesn’t believe there are any problems, he is making dollars available to address the sleeping quarters issue. Something the last three fire chiefs should have fought for many times. Do we as leaders need a wakeup call like a newspaper expose to force us to make changes? I hope this is an isolated incident. I believe women are as important to the fire service as men. We just ignored them for too long. They work just as hard, pass the same tests, get the same education, and are as intelligent as the next guy. Why wouldn’t we want them on the job and respect their needs?
As I said before, it all starts at the top.
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William Jolley has 37 years of experience in the fire service with 20 of those years in a management position. William was the Fire Chief of Haines City, Florida, a city of Approximately 20,000. Prior to that William was the Assistant Chief of Saint Petersburg, Florida, where he worked for 35 years.