Inequality in the fire services still a hot topic around the world
"We must admit that it exists in our house"
Despite movements like #metoo and Black Lives Matter, media reports from fire brigades around the world are still telling countless stories of serious problems with gender inequality, racism, sexism and bullying in the workplace - problems which can lead to depression, to employees leaving the profession or even taking their own lives.
Photo above: Nicole Hladic took her own life at age 27 after a shift change at the fire station, and the family is demanding answers. Photo by the Nicole Hladic Memorial page.
Video above: A black firefighter was called out for being black while doing his job in uniform, as reported by Ana Kasparian and Brett Erlich, hosts of The Young Turks.
This is a digest of works written on the topic of equality in various media, collected by Björn Ulfsson (CTIF Communications Coordinator) and Mira Leinonen, Chair of the CTIF Commission for Women in Fire & Rescue Services.
Andrew Seicol is the fire chief of the North White Plains Fire Department in Westchester, New York. He has been a firefighter for nearly 15 years, and chief of department for six years. Seicol holds a master’s degree in public administration with a concentration in emergency management from John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
In a recent article in FireRescue1 Seicol challenges everyone to open their eyes and widen their horizons to what is happening both inside, and outside their community. Just because you don´t see it perhaps in your own small station, it doesn´t mean it´s not there if you dig around and look further than your closest colleagues.
"We must admit that it exists in our house", he says.
From initially not believing these problems existed in the fire services, in recent months, Seicol reports that he has been forced to acknowledge that serious issues exist after reading countless social media posts and articles on the topic from all around the US and beyond.
"What I’ve learned ... is that organizations and individuals alike must do a better job to listen to those impacted and take ownership of their role in this issue. We must condemn institutional racism and acknowledge our role in its continued existence, regardless of our individual and organizational relationships. This will not solve the issue outright, but I can guarantee that without this step, progress will not occur", he wrote in his June 8 FireRescue1 Voices POV-article "Institutional racism in the fire service".
"They can work hard and pass the physical test, but if they aren’t hockey fans ... it’s tough to pass the station assessment and the panel interview."
In Canada, columnist Elise Stolte at the Edmonton Journal claims that "Women, Black and Indigenous firefighters face a rough ride at Edmonton fire department", in an opinion article from October 6, 2020:
"Because Edmonton Fire Rescue Services has a tendency to hire more of one personality type, race and gender, there is little diversity. Anyone who is different can expect to fight gossip, slander, cold shoulders, misogyny and racial slurs for years", she writes.
According to the article, "fewer than one per cent of the front line firefighters in Edmonton are women. Fewer than seven per cent identify as a visible minority, compared to 37 per cent of the community at large.
Samuel Lodenquai, a Black Canadian firefighter in Edmonton AB, who quit in frustration this last spring, allegedly used to work in recruitment and training. He said people from black, indigenous and other minority communities are applying, as are many women. However, the statistics reflect that only very few make it through:
"They can work hard and pass the physical test, but if they aren’t hockey fans and long-time Edmontonians, it’s tough to pass the station assessment and panel interview", he says.
Lodenquai claims racial slurs are used high up in the Edmonton chain of command. In Lodenquai’s experience, the racism got worse after the city introduced mandatory Indigenous awareness training.
And even though it´s only a small percentage of employees that are racist, they often set the tone because they are vocal, loud and stubborn in their refusal to let go of their habits and beliefs.
In a September 24 article on Firerescue1, an Asian American firefighter is said to have sued his fire chief for making racist remarks regarding COVID-19:
Firefighter Timothy Burkhard from New Jersey claims in his lawsuit filed against his deputy fire chief that during the training in March, the chief had made "racist comments about Asians" and "mockingly" asked Burkhard if he had recently been in Wuhan, China while squinting his eyes "so that they narrowed in a racist caricature of Asian facial features," according to the Bridgewater Courier News.
"Shortly after the suicide of my wife Nicole, a promise was made to me by the Department that every effort to educate and re-shape the culture of this male dominated profession would be met..."
Suicide can be the ultimate price
In 2016, the story of a female firefighter, Nicole Mittendorff, made headlines around the North American continent.
Allegedly very rude and condescending online conversations about their co-workers' bodies, their sex lives, their abilities as first responders drove Mittendorff to take her life in Fairfax County:
Since then, Fairfax County firefighters and paramedics have had sensitivity training and seminars. The fire department even appointed a special director to deal with the rampant sexism and sexual harassment there.
Nationally, others hoped that Fairfax firefighter Nicole Mittendorff's 2016 suicide would be the "fire bell in the night" to help put an end to the bullying.
However, two years later, in 2018, the Washington Post wrote of one of Fairfax County´s highest-ranking women, Battalion Chief Kathleen Stanley, finally having enough after male firefighters were caught bullying their female colleagues by leaving a penis shaped water bottle in the staff room. This was allegedly in response to complaints about other, previous forms of sexism in the station.
Stanley had fought this fight before; she sued in 2005, when she and other women challenged a pattern of discrimination and harassment in the management of the organization.
The ´penis bottle incident´ came two years after the station experienced the 2016 suicide of Nicole Mittendorff, which had been suspected to be the result of sexist bullying:
"Shortly after the suicide of my wife Nicole, a promise was made to me by the department that every effort to educate and re-shape the culture of this male dominated profession would be met; ultimately, to provide every female or male a safe place to work free of harassment by others and one that is open to progressive change," her widowed husband Steve Mittendorff wrote in a statement obtained by WTOP.
But change allegedly never came.
Battalion Chief Kathleen Stanley, who was appointed director of the department's women's program in the aftermath of Mittendorff's suicide, resigned from that position out of frustration with the department's refusal to change.
"This position is for show, with no legitimate authority, respect, or value," Stanley wrote in her resignation letter.
Sometimes hard to prove the cause of a suicide
In July 2020 the Chicago based newspaper WGN9 wrote about the suicide of a young female firefighter who went from being very happy with her job to being very negative shortly after a shift change at the station.
27- year old Nicole Hladic was described as "super active, super fit, a family person...", by her family:
“... we just want someone to look into this, it’s not an accusation. It’s just the facts are; how could someone who was so happy and who loved what she was doing, go from one spectrum to the other end? It just doesn’t make any sense,” her brother Joseph Hladik said.
In the United Kingdom black firefighters claim to have been struggling for decades
In the United Kingdom, retired firefighters have recently accused the Gloucestershire Fire and Rescue Service of being "institutionally racist".
Nathan Lewis is a black fireghter who served in Gloucestershire for nearly 30 years before he retired aged 55, in 2019. Now, he has called for a government inquiry regarding the systematic racism he feels always existed, and continues to exist in the workplace:
"Serving my community has been a pleasure but working in an organisation like that is painful because of what happens to people like me... It's institutionally racist. It's archaic...They've made me feel worthless. I'm embarrassed to say it but they made me feel different, different to my colleagues who are Caucasian", he told BBC News on October 5th, 2020.
Also in the UK, Hampshire Fire and Rescue’s first black firefighter Ludwig Ramsey tells the story of all the battles of racism that he faced during his two-decade career:
"It’s not so much the colleagues on the ground; change has to come from senior management. The colleagues understand you have challenges, but if those issues aren't addressed at the top then nothing will happen", he told The Andover Advertizer on July 26th.
Only 2 black firefighters out of almost 500: The numbers don´t match community demographics
According to an article in The Spec.com, Hamilton fire department has 468 full-time firefighters, and less than one percent are black - that´s about the same number of black firefighters there has been in the department since the 1990s.
Despite official commitments to hire across boundaries of racial, gender and sexual preference, numbers are not growing when it comes to racially diverse firefighters. When Ron Summers retired last month after 30 years of service, the number of full-time black firefighters in the Hamilton fire department dropped from three to two, according to the recent article on The Spec.com.
"And that’s a problem", says Summers, who spent a number of years as an executive member of the Hamilton Professional Firefighters Association.
"The fire and rescue services show how strong (or weak) they are by the way they are treating the minorities in their community. But what often gets forgotten about is this: even if a fire department is ´diverse´, is it also ´inclusive´? Is every job and every position really attainable for everybody, regardless of race, gender, or sexual preference?"
In their meeting in Vienna 2018, the CTIF Women’s Commission had a round table discussion about harassment and bullying in fire and rescue services based on the research that a Swedish network for female firefighters had done.
"It is extremely important to call out and appropriately address bad behaviour around sexual harassment and bullying for all genders and any ethnicity. Recognition that this is an issue everywhere (even if we are not hearing it yet) is vital and we must be proactive", says Mira Leinonen.
The progressive nation of Sweden is no exception
In 2017, several national media in Sweden wrote about problems at many fire brigades, often severe problems, which surprised many since Sweden has gained a name for it self in recent decades as both ´progressive and feminist´.
In a #metoo inspired campaign named #LarmetGår ("The Call Out") over 100 reports came in during less than one week of sexism, racism and bullying in Sweden´s fire services - an organisation where only 4% are women.
In one of the reports, a female firefighter said she had received a banana with a condom over it, left in her locker room on her first day at work. Another woman said she was routinely referred to as "the hole" by one of her officers during gym training. Another female firefighter was advised by her officers to lock her sleeping room at night because they could not guarantee her safety.
Displaying pornorgraphy during working hours as a method of "testing" female colleagues were reportedly routine situations at work, as were male colleagues grabbing crotches and buttocks - all along side daily expressions of sexism, homophobia, transphobia and racism.
"The guy who went and waved his penis through the corridor, the officer who did not tell him to keep his fly closed; they have now both have climbed the ranks... while I have quit."
This is what four Swedish women firefighters, who chose to remain anonymous, wrote in their manifesto:
"As part of the #metoo movement, we break the silence. The stories come from firefighters, fire engineers, officers, managers, administration and officials. We testify together and we do it anonymously. There are too few women, non-binaries and transgender people in the rescue service for us to be able to come forward with our names. We are already too vulnerable as is.... We love our jobs. We want nothing more than to be able to work on equal terms. We know that change is possible. We see that it is getting better in the unions that actively work for gender equality and inclusion. We also have many male colleagues who support us, who stand up for what is right. We also know that more people want to, but do not know how. Start by listening to our stories... Those who do not heed the call are followers: contributors in a culture of silence that enables abuse. Now we urge rescue chiefs, responsible politicians and colleagues to back our call and act!
CTIF was a very early pioneer in women´s rights, and the first meeting on the topics were held only a decade after CTIF was formed 120 years ago.
The first Women's Committee of CTIF was formed in 1912. It was headed by Maria Ermolova (St. Petersburg, Russia). World War I interrupted their activites and the Committee was not reformed until exactly 100 years later. In 2012 the modern version of the Working Group CTIF “Women in Fire Services” started and the first meeting took place in St. Petersburg, Russia. Two years later, the Working Group was upgraded to Commission Status: 2012: CTIF Working Group -- “Women in Fire Services” and 2014: CTIF Commission -- “Women in Fire and Rescue Services”
Within CTIF, the International Association of Fire Services, equality and gender has been a top priority topic for at least two decades. In the CTIF Commission for Women in Fire & Rescue, topics around racial equality and issues regarding equal opportunities for persons of varying sexual preferences are equally important on the agenda, as are their efforts to make way for more women in the fire services.
Text Digest by CTIF Communications Coordinator Björn Ulfsson. Research & Comments by the CTIF Commission For Women in Fire & Rescue Services