Fire Service Sexual Harassment: Leaders Must Set the Tone

Firefighter in silhouette

By Thomas Warren

There seems to be an explosion of sexual harassment charges in recent months. The charges come from all segments of American society. We have recently witnessed charges of sexual harassment from the entertainment field, government, private industry, education, and even in the fire service.

Some of the more notable allegations that have been brought to light involve the likes of film producer Harvey Weinstein, journalist and author Bill O’Reilly, Olympic gymnastics physician Dr. Larry Nassar, and many others. This is clearly not a complete list of individuals who are accused of sexual harassment or sexual assault, but it does represent the broad spectrum of careers where the complaints of sexual harassment originate. It is notable that the fire service is not immune from charges of sexual harassment or sexual assault in the workplace.

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Fire departments that have experienced charges of sexual harassment span the entire country and include both career and volunteer departments.

How can this activity continue to be a problem for the fire service? After all, the fire service has been required to eliminate discrimination of all types since the passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended in 1972.

Fire departments should have a written policy on sexual harassment and it should be part of every new recruit’s training, every fire officer’s promotional examination process, and a clearly stated policy of every chief’s job description. Fire department sexual harassment policies must be part of everyday life in every firehouse, so much so that it is included in fire department training programs. It should not be a policy that is dusted off once a year and reviewed around the firehouse kitchen table. It has to be a living and breathing part of firehouse life, and fire officers must make a visible effort to convey the importance of a fire department sexual harassment policy to every member in their command.

There have been many fine articles and reports written about sexual harassment detailing all the distinctions and nuances of the subject. Many attorneys and scholars have written at great length about the history and implications of sexual harassment, and these articles and reports should be reviewed as well. What I would like to review what sexual harassment looks like at the firehouse level and what firefighters and fire officers should do to prevent it, as well as how to address it when they do recognize it. Everyone in the fire service needs to have a clear understanding of what activities constitute sexual harassment as well as understanding that everyone deserves a respectful workplace.

Let’s start by defining what sexual harassment is and apply that definition to our experiences in the firehouse.

Sexual harassment is sexually-oriented behavior that is unwelcome, unwanted and/or uninvited by the recipient (male or female). It includes any unwelcomed sexual advance, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when:

a. Submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual’s employment, or

b. Submission to or rejection of such conduct is used as a basis for decisions affecting that individual with regard to employment, or

c. Such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, humiliating, or sexually offensive work environment. (1. & 2.)

It is obvious that behaviors such as rape, sexual battery, molestation or physical assault are illegal and not the typical grounds for sexual harassment charges. What we are commonly seeing in the firehouse are the more subtle behaviors that may at first glance go unnoticed by the company officer. Behaviors such as sexually-oriented gestures, noises, remarks, jokes, or comments about a person’s sexuality or sexual experiences are forms of sexual harassment. Other behaviors that are troublesome include touching, pinching, patting, grabbing, brushing against or poking a coworker’s body without their permission, and even staring or. Other activities that constitute a sexually offensive work environment include things that were common in every firehouse years ago, such as displaying pictures, posters, calendars, reading materials, videos, cable television broadcasts, Internet programming, or any other material that is sexually suggestive, sexually demeaning, or pornographic in nature.

The first step in creating a welcoming and respectful work environment is for the department to have a strongly worded and enforceable sexual harassment policy. The policy must be available for every firefighter to read, preferably posted on a bulletin board, and the policy should be part of an annual training program. It is also vitally important that the policy be part of all promotional exam study materials. The concept is to develop a culture in the department where creating a welcoming and respectful work environment is as common as a cup of coffee is every morning in the firehouse.

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The next step is for company officers to be on the look out in the firehouse for sexually-oriented reading materials, locker doors left open with sexually-oriented materials hanging in plain view, sexually offensive videos, and even offensive coffee mugs.  It is also important to monitor the behavior of the firefighters in your command to ensure that their interactions do not become sexually-oriented through touching or language. The fire officer must also be vigilant to be sure that no one person is the target of teasing or pranks in the firehouse. When making assignments, be sure to keep everyone involved and give everyone the same opportunities at every assignment. Encourage everyone to perform at his or her highest level and offer encouragement freely to every member of your command. A good fire officer is a mentor and stresses the team concept in reaching goals. A good fire officer also sets the tone for their company. The workplace in the fire service extends well beyond the firehouse to every emergency response scene. Fire officers must ensure that all firefighters display a mutual respect for each other while operating at every emergency scene that they respond to.

Chief officers are the next step, and at this point the chief officer’s role is similar to the company officer, observing and monitoring the activities and behavior of the firefighters in their command. Chief officers should check the training records of every company to ensure that sexual harassment training is part of an ongoing program, that the sexual harassment policy is posted, and to conduct periodic inspections of the firehouses. The area where a chief officer will have the most contact with the firefighters in their command is out in the field during emergency operations. When a fire officer is doing a good job with the firefighters in their command, it will become very apparent to the chief officer. Company officers who are found to be lacking must be counseled to ensure the sexual harassment policy is taken as seriously as it needs to be.  

Lastly, there needs to be a clear and understandable procedure for firefighters to file a complaint. This process must be included in the sexual harassment policy. The policy must also include provisions for firefighters to follow when their direct supervisor (officer) is the person engaged in the harassing behavior. Firefighters must have a convenient, confidential, and reliable method for reporting incidents of sexual harassment. Firefighters must feel free to file a complaint without fear of retaliation and feel confident that their complaint will be taken seriously and that it will be investigated. Larger departments may have an internal mechanism to handle complaints and smaller departments may rely on other government agencies to conduct an investigation. Whatever the procedure is, it must be clearly detailed in the sexual harassment policy as well as an explanation of the steps that will be followed as the complaint is adjudicated. When a complaint is filed, the complainant must be assured that there will be no retaliation for filing the complaint. Once a complaint is filed, all officers and supervisors are responsible to ensure that a respectful workplace is maintained. It is a violation of law to treat someone who has filed a complaint differently that anyone else.

The most effective way to ensure that sexual harassment incidents do not occur is for company officers to be vigilant in their daily activities; demonstrate respect for the firefighters in their command; conduct regular sexual harassment training; and to set the tone clearly and forcibly that sexual harassment will not be tolerated. This same concept must be equally applicable to every fire chief and supervisor in the chain of command.

Thomas N. Warren has more than 40 years of experience in the fire service in both career and volunteer departments. He retired as assistant chief of department of the Providence (RI) Fire Department after 33 years of service. Presently he is a faculty member at Bristol Community College in the Fire Science Technology Program teaching a variety of subjects in the fire science discipline. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in fire science from Providence College, an Associate’s Degree in business administration from the Community College of Rhode Island and a Certificate in Occupational Safety and Health from Roger Williams University.


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