Equality, trophies, fairness, and privilege. Probably not the first words that come to mind when you think of the fire service. I would instead be writing about pride, service, family, courage, leadership, mentors, and community… the words that come to my mind when I think of the fire service.
But I can’t in good faith continue to let the undercurrent of sexism, harassment, and bullying in the fire service continue without standing up for those that have become easy targets because we are different. My goal is to reach who I believe to be the small but vocal members of this profession who still somehow think that embracing a diverse workforce is unacceptable.
Let’s start with the definition of a trophy; according to Merriam-Webster, there are a few definitions:
- something gained or given in victory or conquest especially when preserved or mounted as a memorial
- a memorial of an ancient Greek or Roman victory raised on the field of battle or the nearest land for a naval victory
- a representation of such a monument (as on a medal); also: an architectural ornament representing a group of military weapons
- a game animal or fish suitable for mounting as a trophy —usually used attributively
- one that is prized for qualities that enhance prestige or social status —usually used attributively
- a trophy wife
- a trophy house
So imagine my surprise when I read a rather scathing article that implied women, minorities, and those that aren’t of the same mindset or physical conditioning as the author are just “trophy firefighters.” It read more of a rant than anything inspiring; you know when you are super frustrated and compose an email that you should probably wait 24 hours before you hit send? In some ways, I should be grateful for the article because it inspired me to finally speak up, stand up, and call out the bullies. I am issuing a challenge to my fire service family; enough is enough. Let’s get it together and focus on what makes this profession amazing.
But First, a Little Background
In a few days, I will complete my 18th year in the fire service as a professional firefighter. But the reality is that I have spent my entire life in the fire service. My grandfather and my dad were both volunteer firefighters for several years. My dad spent at least 40 hours a week at his volunteer department, so naturally, we had to go to the fire station to see dad.
When I told my dad my senior year in high school that I wanted to be a firefighter, he said to lay down until the feeling went away.
Then he proceeded to tell me that I was a woman and I would have a tough time in the profession. Not because I wasn’t able to do the job, engage in the shenanigans at the station, or dish out the witty banter necessary for the job, it was because I was a female.
Bless my old man’s crusty, unfiltered, and sexist heart; he unknowingly became my first mentor in the fire service. That by no means excuses his behavior (thank God for therapy and boundaries), but it was his passion for the job that first inspired me to become a public servant. He was honest, direct, and although we don’t agree on much, he opened my eyes to the not so sexy side of the fire service. His words of caution didn’t stop me but reminded me that I would have to work my ass off because I would always be under a microscope.
I Won the Lottery
Fast forward a few years, and I was at the fire academy, 23 years old, with two other females, 20 white guys, and 1 Hispanic male. I was terrified and had so much doubt that I don’t remember the first half of the academy. I had a couple of challenges in the academy, but I overcame them without special treatment. The staff of all white males and one female worked hard for all 20 of my classmates (4 were not successful) to ensure we graduated prepared to serve our community.
During the first five years of my career, I worked with the most exceptional officers and senior firefighters in the profession. And you what? They were ALL WHITE MALES. These men were hired long before women, and yet they took me under their wing, mentored me, and gave me a solid foundation for my career. I was beginning to think that my dad was wrong about this job. I never felt like I was treated differently because of my gender.
Goals to Become an Officer
I decided to promote to lieutenant with five years on the job. My time as a lieutenant was magical. I was back at the station, where it all began when I was on probation. I spent a year on the truck and learned so much from my crew (yep, all white males) that it was tough to keep up. Then I moved to the engine for a few years, where we raised new paramedics and laughed until we cried every day.
At some point in my career, between the magical days as a lieutenant and now, I realized that some people treated me differently as a captain. The poor treatment is subtle; just last week, I was sitting in a meeting, and one of the deputy chiefs went around the table, acknowledging everyone but me. Being treated like I am invisible happens frequently. Is this treatment illegal? No. Questionable? Probably. Can I prove this Chief did it on purpose? Nope. Can I show it is because I am a woman? No.
When a white male is held accountable by a woman or minority, the accuser is guilty until proven innocent. And I don’t want to speak for anyone else, but I know several people (all races and genders) who are treated poorly, and I also know that they don’t feel safe speaking up for fear of retaliation. How are we supposed to protect and serve our community if we don’t protect and help each other? This culture is sick and not healthy. Sometimes I am not sure if I am in the fire service or high school.
I am well aware that I would not be where I am in my career without the guidance, support, mentorship, and leadership of white males. And even with a push to make the fire service more diverse, it is still 80% white males. So don’t worry, guys, we aren’t coming for your jobs. We want to work side by side and provide the best service to our communities.
Women and minorities in the fire service are well aware that the spotlight is on us. But I don’t spend my time thinking about your deficiencies; I TRUST that you worked hard to earn the job. As an officer, I expect failure from everyone because that is how we learn, grow, and move forward. Women and minorities don’t have the grace of imperfection that our white male counterparts have. And here is the most frustrating part, when I think about it, I didn’t notice this change in treatment until my mentors retired and the new generation started filling up the seats.
That’s right, the new guys!! The guys who are junior and have always known women and minorities on the job. Please be clear. I don’t believe that all white guys feel this way. I am confident that a small minority of dudes (bullies) feel they are superior to everyone, not just women and minorities. However, the responsibility of changing this culture falls on the shoulders of the men who support an inclusive and diverse workforce. Women and minorities are not the appropriate messengers (trust me, we have tried).
White Guys who don’t embrace diversity (you know who you are): Regardless of your position in the organization, get to know your brother and sister firefighters. I think you will be surprised. Once you look beyond race and gender, we in the fire service all bleed the same. Don’t be afraid to have difficult conversations, ask uncomfortable questions. Get to know the “why” we joined the fire service. The answers may surprise you. And seriously, some of you have daughters; how would you want them treated? Trust me when I say some significant human growth will happen!!
White Guys who embrace diversity: Stand up to the bullies! Just because you are not the target doesn’t mean you can’t step up and fight for the underdog. Use your white privilege to change the culture of the fire service. Yes, the conversations might be uncomfortable at first, but we need you to speak up.
Women and Minorities: We need to support each other and not throw one another to the wolves. I hate to break it to you, but we are different. We kick ass at this job, but unless we start standing up for ourselves and stop tolerating poor treatment, nothing changes. Take control over your career; you worked hard and had earned the badge, don’t let the bullies win. Start the difficult conversations, be courageous and brave. Break down the barriers.
To all leaders in the fire service: Lead, don’t judge. Don’t accept or participate in treating each other poorly. Be nice, be safe, and hold out your hand to help lift your crews. Stop taking anything less from yourself or the people you lead.
Let’s use our differences to strengthen our profession, create a culture of acceptance, and get back to serving our communities.
What happens if we continue down this road?
As first responders, we all have ghosts that haunt us. Over the years, the trauma we see adds up; this is evident by the rising rate of suicide among us. I can tell you from personal experience that I never considered suicide from my ghosts. But when I was bullied at work by my “brothers and sisters,” I thought about taking my own life.
And let’s not forget about Nicole in VA or another female that worked for my organization. She left several years ago, but her time here was full of harassment, bullying, and poor treatment. When she took her life last year, I couldn’t help but think about what role those bullies had in her decision.
We all identify being a firefighters. Each of us has a different journey that has led us to serve in this noble profession. We have enough to worry about with mental and physical health, cancer, scene safety, and taking care of our communities. The time has come for us to rise above the negativity and treat each other better.
What will you do today to start taking better care of each other? What blind spots are you willing to talk about?
And just in case you were curious, I have just scratched the surface of this topic. More to come in the future.