Why Don’t We Value Women in Fire & EMS?

 By:  Robert Avsec

Several years ago, I wrote a piece for Fire Chief Magazine’s fledging—at the time—blog, Mutual Aid, about a book I’d recently read, Generally Speaking by U.S. Army Lieutenant General Claudia Kennedy (Ret.).  I chose to write about that book in particular because of one of the chapters made quite an impression on me regarding what the Army had learned about sexual harassment in the ranks.

General Kennedy described her experiences as a member of the Army’s review panel that investigated charges of sexual misconduct and crimes at the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Grounds (APG) in Maryland.  The Secretary of the Army’s investigation stemmed from charges brought against several non-commissioned officers for offenses they’d allegedly committed against female trainees while serving as drill sergeants at APG.   (The charges involved various offenses to female trainees ranging from sexual harassment to sexual assault and rape).

Not surprisingly, the Review Panel found that Army leaders were the critical factor in creating, maintaining, and enforcing an environment of respect and dignity. But too many leaders had failed to gain the trust of their soldiers.

Recently, one of my fire service and LinkedIn colleagues, Chief Cheryl Horvath, wrote about the continuing struggle that women face trying to become a part of the Fire and EMS world in the USA.  I would challenge you to read both pieces—keeping in mind that the sexual misconduct and crimes at APG surfaced in 1996—and ask yourself, “How come we’ve not gotten past this kind of behavior?”

(Our military institutions still have not yet figured it out as evidenced by the recent spotlight on the number of sexual assaults, both reported and unreported, being perpetrated on active duty personnel, especially women).

General Kennedy and her colleagues on the panel used surveys, focus groups, personal interviews, and observations to garner information from more than 30K soldiers across the Army’s global enterprise.  The panel members and its staff used the specific information from a cohort of 15K as the basis for detailed data analysis.

What did the panel report out to the Secretary of the Army?  The significant underlying issue for the Army was an overall lack of respect and dignity that created an environment where sexual harassment was not just tolerated, but in more than a few cases, condoned.  In her book, Kennedy wrote:

The good news was that the panel also found many examples of good leadership around the world, where the leaders created high levels of respect and dignity in the harshest and most challenging work environments, even in deployments like Kuwait and Bosnia. The panel identified that these units had good leaders who:

  • Set standards for the members of their organization.

  • Exemplified, through their personal conduct, adherence to those standards.

  • Enforced and maintained those standards for the other members of the organization.

  • Demonstrated genuine care and concern for their soldiers, regardless of their rank, race or gender.

When I read Chief Horvath’s article, I couldn’t help but think that these same behaviors, or rather lack of, form the basis for why women still face huge obstacles becoming firefighters and officers.   Why are we tolerating these barriers at a time when the positive attributes of women in the workplace are being recognized and valued by a greater number of public and private organizations?

I believe that these same characteristics are what we need to strive for to create an environment that prevents not only sexual harassment, but other forms of harassment and intolerance as well, from entering our work place, thus creating an environment for success.  If we do not find ways to recruit, hire, and retain the best female talent for our Fire & EMS organizations and make them important members of our organizations how can we in good conscience tell the public that we are providing the best services possible?

What do you think?  Let me know and I’ll make your thoughts part of a future blog on the topic, OK?

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About Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

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, [email protected].