Sexual Harassment in the Fire Service: How Can You Not Know?

By: Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

The #MeToo movement has shined a light into dark places and the cockroaches are still scattering. Finally, women in all walks of life are getting small measure of attention to the sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape that happens just because a woman goes to work. The key words in that previous sentence are “small measure” because that’s what it is.

U.S. Forest Service Female Firefighters

In an earth-shattering piece in March 2018, the PBS News Hour brought to the public attention the plight of female firefighters in the U.S. Forest Service as they not only battle wildland fires, but also sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape by their male firefighter colleagues and superiors. Click on image for full story.

As a 60-year-old white male retired battalion chief, it pains me greatly to read and hear about the continued assault on women in the fire service. From small fire departments to the U.S. Forest Service the cockroaches keep appearing. How is this possible in 2018?

We’re long past education and training on sexual harassment in the workplace. As my fire service colleague, attorney, and fellow blogger Curt Varone has written on many occasions, “Tactical solutions [education and training and policies] are not the solution for adaptive problems.” Anyone now in the fire service in the U.S. who doesn’t understand what sexual harassment is and what sexual assault is and what rape is, well that person probably shouldn’t be anywhere near a fire station.

How can you not know?

“We stand just a little too close, we laugh just a little too loud, we stare just a little too long…”

Those are some lyrics from a Bonnie Raitt song, Let’s Give ‘Em Somethin’ to Talk About, a song about a budding office romance. The kind that makes for another Hallmark Network movie where the lovers think nobody at the office knows about their relationship. But of course, they’ve been leaving clues around that everyone has picked up a long time ago.

Fire stations are not that big, and the cast of characters is not that large. Everybody knows everybody’s business around a fire station. So, how is it that nobody knows when a female firefighter is being sexually harassed—or worse—by a co-worker, company officer, or chief officer?

They know

And that’s what makes this whole dark cloud hanging over the fire service look even larger and darker. Guys on the job know and they don’t say anything. Guys on the job know and they don’t do anything. And then when things “go south” and the sexual harassment, assault, or rape becomes public knowledge, they throw up their hands and say, “We didn’t know!”

You know what’s even worse?

Nicole Mittendorf

The late Firefighter/Paramedic Nicole Mittendorf of the Fairfax County (Va.) Fire and Rescue Department who took her own life in April 2016 following repeated cyber-bullying from fellow firefighters in her department. Click image to read more.

The fire service “leaders” who know and don’t do anything. The ones who see it or receive the complaint and don’t properly investigate and find those responsible and hold them accountable for their actions. The ones who instead shame the victims, promote the aggressors, and whitewash the complaints or investigations. The ones who say their departments have, “A zero-tolerance policy towards sexual harassment…” but have no clue what that means.

Only the Guys Can Fix This

I’ve said it before in this space, and I’m saying it again, white men have created this culture in the fire service and only white men can fix it. And this is not a problem to be fixed with training and education.

Cultural change only happens when the current “normal” is replaced by a “new” normal. People didn’t quit smoking in appreciable numbers because the science said it would kill them (Starting with the U.S. Surgeon General’s famous warning in 1964). No, they started quitting in real numbers as smoking became less and less socially acceptable. And public places where one could light up became as rare as hen’s teeth.

I’m not totally sure how we start making fire stations like that, but until we do this problem will persist. What are your thoughts?

Survivors of both stranger rape and acquaintance rape often blame themselves for behaving in a way that encouraged the perpetrator. It’s important to remember that the victim is a never to blame for the actions of a perpetrator. To speak with someone who is trained to help, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) or chat online at

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 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].