How long with this s*it go on?

By: Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

NJ fire chief sexually harassed teen volunteer: lawsuit

I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired. About sexual harassment in the fire service. And if you are male firefighter—of any rank—why aren’t you as well?

As I’ve written in this space many times, male firefighters could stop sexual harassment, sexual assaults, and all forms of fire service discrimination against firefighters of the female gender today! Men are the dominant group who have written the rules and defined the culture that enables those abhorrent behaviors to continue. And no number of laws, training sessions, or SOP’s are going to fix the problem.

As my fire service colleague and attorney, Chief Curt Verone, has stated many times, those are tactical solutions to a transformative problem.

Transformational change is defined as “2nd order, frame-breaking change that completely alters your current operating structure. These changes will have massive change to processes, people, and typically technology. Once you take these leaps, you can’t change your mind and go back to the old ways. And transformation can’t be done incrementally.”

And that transformative problem is how to change the fire service culture so that sexual harassment and discrimination toward female firefighters are no longer part of that culture.

This is not a change that can happen “top down” or “bottom up.” It requires an all-out assault from all levels in an organization. I’m talking “safety stand down” urgency! Because you and your fire department are in jeopardy every day that you delay in acting. Think you don’t have a problem? Think again.

  • You don’t have any women in your fire Department? It’s the end of 2020, why not?
  • Did you ever consider that the culture is so pervasive that it’s affecting your ability to recruit and retain women?
  • Is it any wonder that even those fire departments that do aggressively recruit women find it difficult when the Google search for sexual harassment cases in the fire service turns up multiple number of pages of search results? Don’t think for one minute that young women who might be interested in a fire service career aren’t doing some Internet browsing of their own.
For the first time ever, Palm Beach Gardens Fire Rescue had a crew that was entirely made up of women.
The team working the shift was made up of rescue lieutenants Krystyna Krakowski and Kelsey Krzywada, firefighter paramedic Julie Dudley, captain Monica Marzullo and driver engineer Sandi Ladewski.

IT’S NOT A WOMAN ISSUE, IT’S A LEADERSHIP ISSUE

Leaders should make clear that there is no organizational cover for harassment by implementing clear and credible reporting structures, ensuring that investigations of harassment claims are thorough, and fitting the punishment to the offense, rather than the status of the offender.

Sexual harassment is not a women’s issue but a leadership one. Women do not need to be “protected” from the misbehavior of men in their workplaces. They need their managers to foster cultures in which sexual bullying is treated as the threat to the organization it is.

Ammerman, C. and Groysber, B. Why Sexual Harassment Persists and What Organizations Can Do to Stop It. Harvard Business Review. December 21, 2017

Read More: Why Sexual Harassment Persists and What Organizations Can Do to Stop It

HAVE THE FRANK DISCUSSIONS

This transformative change in our culture will only happen when the fire service leaders get out there and sit down with their firefighters and officers over coffee or lunch, day and night, and initiate the difficult and uncomfortable conversations that must take place. Here’s my sample script for how to initiate those conversations if you’re the fire chief:

  • I recognize that sexual harassment and discrimination targeting female firefighters is a plague upon our honorable profession. It’s 2020 and if you don’t know this, and it doesn’t make you sick, I suggest you seek another line of work. Because, despite our efforts to inform and educate you about why this is wrong and unacceptable, you just don’t get it and likely never will.
  • If you think for one minute that it can’t happen here, you are wrong. Every fire Department that has experienced sexual harassment and discrimination to date thought the same thing period until they were front page news or slapped with a lawsuit.
  • Male firefighters, as the dominant group and all fire departments are the ones who developed the current culture. Therefore, it is 100% our responsibility to change it.
  • I cannot, and will not tolerate, any allegations of sexual harassment or discrimination against any female firefighters in our Department. Let me go further and say that I will not tolerate any behavior towards any member of our organization that is discriminatory or hostile or demeaning.
  • I believe in the “platinum rule,” that says, “Treat others the way they want to be treated.” And you should embrace that rule, too.

AND THEN SIT BACK AND LISTEN

And if nobody speaks up, then lay these on them. “It takes great courage to speak truth to power and maybe that’s why everyone is holding their tongue because I’m the fire chief. And that’s one big problem that needs to change in our culture.”

“Because it will take great courage, when you hear a fellow firefighter speak ill of a female firefighter or woman in our profession in general, to speak up and say STOP! It will take great courage to report something you saw or heard that you know is not right.”

“Because it will take great courage to be the one who spoke up.”

Are you ready to have those difficult conversations?

About Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

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Battalion Chief (Ret.) Robert Avsec served with the men and women of the Chesterfield County (VA) Fire and EMS Department for 26 years. He’s now using his acquired knowledge, skills, and experiences as a freelance writer for FireRescue1.com and as the “blogger in chief” for this blog. Chief Avsec makes his home in Cross Lanes, WV. Contact him via e-mail, rpa1157@gmail.com.