In March, Petaluma welcomed only the third female firefighter in its history to join the department. There was reason to celebrate — Fire Chief Jeff Schach said last week that he has been actively trying to recruit a more diverse team of first responders.
However, there was also reason to be cautious.
Petaluma’s last female firefighter faced sexual harassment and retaliation so severe, she was paid a $1.25 million settlement by the city. Shortly after she quit in 2014, a group of local firefighters approached the Argus-Courier, concerned about the bad behavior they had to witness.
They asked for anonymity, fearful of retaliation from the “brotherhood mentality” that they claimed ran rampant at the firehouse at the time. They described fellow firefighters pulling back the curtain while the lone female firefighter was in the shower, making inappropriate remarks about her looks and attempting to intimidate her.
Luckily, a leadership at the department has changed since then, and Schach said he is dedicated to building a fire station that can better support women, with more privacy in bathrooms and sleeping corridors. It’s an important step in the right direction, and Schach’s dedication to improving the facilities to support a more diverse firehouse should be commended.
But equal attention is needed on improving the culture that allowed that bad behavior to thrive.
To be clear, this is not strictly a Petaluma problem — this issue plagues the nation. In a 2008 “National Report Card on Women in Firefighting,” 46.2% of female firefighters said their privacy was violated while they showered or changed clothes at work, compared to 2.8% of their male colleagues.
Last year, Los Angeles Women in the Fire Service called for the removal of LA Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas, who they alleged was complicit in building a toxic and unsafe environment for women in the service that resulted in sexual assaults and pervasive harassment. Numerous departments across the country have reported similar issues with the male-dominated occupation, as only 4% of career firefighters and 11% of volunteer firefighters in the US are women, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
“In a surprisingly large number of fire departments . . . It’s OK to harass and physically assault women and minorities — even stations rape women — in our fire,” William R. Metcalf, the former president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, wrote in an open letter to the organization’s membership in 2014.
He called firefighting a “white guy’s club,” noting that in addition to women, minorities often face challenges when integrating into a firehouse.
Beyond the obvious ethical issues, this presents a public safety problem. California, a state where fire season is year-round, is running low on firefighters. The US Forest Service, which operates the largest wildfire firefighting force, has 25% fewer firefighters than it had hoped, the San Francisco Chronicle article reported this week.
Cal Fire’s 2020 “Fire Siege” report noted, “One of the greatest challenges faced by incident commanders was the scarcity of fire crews.”
California needs more bodies to help fight our seemingly endless wildfires, but those efforts will continue to be hampered if 50% of the population does not feel safe or comfortable to do this vital work. Everyone deserves to be secure and respected in the workplace, which is why fire departments must change the culture — and the facilities — to break up the boy’s club and make a safe, secure space for women in the fire service.