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Enhancing culture with facilities to protect women firefighters

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In March, Petaluma welcomed the third female firefighter in its history to the department. There was reason to celebrate — Fire Chief Jeff Schach said last week that he was actively trying to recruit a more diverse team of first responders.

But there was also reason to be cautious.

Petaluma’s last female firefighter faced sexual harassment and retaliation and was awarded a $1.25 million settlement by the city. Shortly after she left in 2014, a group of local firefighters approached her Argus-Courier, concerned about the bad behavior they had witnessed.

They asked for anonymity out of fear of retaliation from the “spirit of brotherhood” they claimed was rampant at the fire station at the time. firefighters pulled back the curtain, made inappropriate remarks about her appearance, and attempted to intimidate her.

Fortunately, the department’s leadership has changed since then, with Schach saying it’s dedicated to building fire stations that can better support women, with privacy in the bathroom and bedroom corridors. This is an important step in the right direction and Schach’s dedication to improving facilities to support a more diverse fire department should be applauded.

But it also requires equal attention to improve the culture that fostered that bad behavior.

To be clear, this is not strictly a Petaluma issue. This problem plagues the country. According to the 2008 National Report on Women in Firefighters, 46.2% of female firefighters said their privacy was violated when showering or changing clothes at work, compared to 2.8% of male firefighters. % was.

Last year, the Los Angeles Women in the Fire Service called for the removal of LA Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas. They claimed they had created a toxic and unsafe environment for women in the fire department and were complicit in the spread of sexual assault and harassment. According to the American Fire Protection Association, many departments across the country report similar problems with male-dominated occupations, with just 4% of U.S. firefighter careers and her 11% of volunteer firefighters being women.

“In a surprisingly large number of fire stations…it’s okay to harass women and minorities in our fire stations, physically assault them, and rape women,” said the former president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs. One William R. Metcalfe wrote in an open letter to members of the organization in 2014:

He called firefighting a “white man’s club” and noted that minorities, in addition to women, often face difficulties in integrating into fire departments.

Beyond the obvious ethical issues, this presents public safety issues. Firefighters are in short supply in California, a year-round fire season. A firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service, who runs the largest wildfire brigade, has 25 percent fewer than expected, an article in the San Francisco Chronicle reported this week.

Cal Fire’s 2020 “Fire Siege” report states, “One of the biggest challenges faced by Incident Commanders was the lack of firefighters.”

California needs more organizations to fight the seemingly endless wildfires. Everyone should be safe and respected at work. Therefore, the fire department must change its culture and facilities, dismantling the boys’ club and creating a safe and secure space for the women of the fire brigade.