Angela Hughes: Harassment Doesn’t Happen in My Department

By Angela Hughes

Harassment is very much alive and has dominance in many types of workplaces, and the fire service is not excluded from workplace harassment. The fire department prides itself on being a “family.”  The brotherhood and sisterhood is alive and strong!  We look out for each other, celebrate the good days and support each other on the bad days. We should be, but there may be learned prejudices that we do not even realize we bring to work. The reason many of us think that harassment doesn’t happen in our departments is that, most often, when people think of harassment, they think only sexual harassment. Yet, harassment is not only sexual in nature.

Harassment as defined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is unwelcomed conduct based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability, or genetic information. Harassment is basically treating someone poorly because that person is different. The difference can be the color of the skin, age, gender, or sexual orientation, to name a few.

Behaviors We May Be Bringing to Work


Many of us have taken part in some sort of prank or joke with our colleagues. Things like short sheeting a bed or filling up a cup in the cupboard with water so the person grabbing it for his morning coffee get soaked.  We all laugh and wait for the perfect opportunity to get even. Who has not been told, “If they pick on you, that means they like you?” There are many examples of these “traditions” of initiation—or, as they should be called, “hazing” that have gone way too far.  An Internet search for “firehouse pranks” will show that what was meant to be all in good fun is ending careers, causing physical harm, and opening departments to litigation. If it feels like it is wrong, it probably is. We have a morale and legal obligation not to take part in these acts.


Bullying was always thought of as a problem faced in elementary school. Now, it is getting national attention in the workplace and even from professional athletics in the National Football League. Professional football players are held to a code of conduct, and the fire service should be no different. Bullying includes acts of verbal abuse meant to intimidate a person. It ends careers and causes long-term mental health issues. Bullying is compared to spousal abuse and is a behavior that we would not tolerate.  Who wants to rely on a coworker who behaves in this manner? Absolutely no on. This type of behavior has no place in the fire service.

Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment can range from unwanted sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physically harassment of a sexual nature. It can be found in different forms including quid pro quo and hostile environments. Quid pro quo is when a perpetrator makes conditions of employment contingent on the victim providing sexual favors. This is not as common as a hostile environment, which is defined as unwelcome, severe, and persistent sexual conduct on the part of a perpetrator that creates an uncomfortable and a hostile environment. This includes sexually violent crimes such as rape. National campaigns have been launched to take a stand against sexual harassment. This violent crime is not an act of passion but an act or power. It is happening in colleges, military bases, and even the fire service. The United States Fire Administration and the International Association of Fire Chiefs partnered with the International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services ( i-Women) in 2014 on a campaign against harassment in the fire service.

This powerful message included the following:

“Sexual harassment and sexual assault are inconsistent with the values of the fire service and will not be tolerated. We must provide a culture that respects and protects ALL members. This needs to start now. We challenge all leaders to foster a climate of trust and respect. In addition, we demand that any offenders of sexual harassment and sexual assault be held accountable for their actions. iWomen stands united with members of the fire service in getting the message out that this type of behavior against another will not be tolerated and that those member who engage in such activities have no place in the fire service.”

Sexual crimes do not affect just women; men may also suffer from these acts. Sexual harassment in the workplace is illegal and a violation of most fire departments’ policies. Nonetheless, only about five percent of all incidents of harassment are reported. Instead, someone who has been harassed is much more likely to leave the job, request a transfer, or suffer in silence and hope the problem will go away.


A person’s Ability to Do the Job Is All That Should Matter

In the fire service, the line between work and home can become blurred.  At home, we are free to voice our opinions and beliefs–but not in the workplace.  We must remember we are not at home but in a workplace and we have to follow the policies and procedures outlined by the law. 

Harassment becomes unlawful when (1) enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment or (2) the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.

We are held to higher standard when we show up at the station; we have a responsibility as proud members of the fire service to treat everyone equally.  Harassment of any type will not go away; that elephant in the room has to be addressed. It is imperative that we fire service members become familiar with the laws and stand up against behaviors, even from those around us, that intimidate and harm others. It was so eloquently echoed in the i-Women video: “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.”

Help me to ensure that harassment doesn’t happen in your department and to stand up for the heroism for which firefighters are known. Do not participate, and stop any kind of harassment in our fire service.


U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission, http://www.eeoc.gov.

RAINN via Texas Association Against Sexual Assault.

International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services, www.i-women.org.

Angela Hughes began her fire service career in 1989 as a paramedic with the Baltimore City (MD) Fire Department. She was hired by Baltimore County in 1992 and functioned as a paramedic, preceptor/coach, firefighter, fire marshal, lieutenant, and her current rank of fire captain. As the co-founder of the Baltimore County Women in the Fire Service, she continues to mentor women and serves as the president of the International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services. Her committee work includes the U.S. Fire Administration Severity of House Fires, Federal Emergency Management Agency grant reviews, Volunteer & Combination Officer’s Section of the International Association of Fire Chiefs Diversity and Inclusion, National Fallen Firefighters (NFFF) Tampa 2, NFFF Suicide Symposium, and National Fire Protection Association Needs Assessment Summit. She has been published in Fire Engineering, serves on the FireRescue advisory board, and has spoken at several fire service venues.


·U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission – Facts on Sexual Harassment           

·U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission – Facts on Harassment   


·U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission – Facts on Sexual Harassment           

·U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission – Facts on Harassment