The “Me Too” movement began in 2006 to help survivors of sexual violence to assist in resources for survivors and build a community of advocates. The movement has allowed for those of us that are victims to have the courage to come forward and not be afraid. The movement has forced the discussion of sexual violence, but it has also allowed a broader conversation on harassment and bullying to be brought out of the shadows. As a female in the fire service, I’ve been asked many times if I was ever harassed or bullied in the workplace. It is a conversation that I tend to shy away from, but I’ve realized that’s part of the problem. It’s a difficult topic to talk about. It makes us uncomfortable. Yet the topics that must be discussed are the ones that often make us squirm a little in our chair.
Yes, I have endured instances of harassment and bullying during my career, as have so many other men and women. When I began my career in 1996, there was a level of training on sexual harassment that came with the introduction of females into the department. As one of two females hired, I was young, impressionable and wanted to fit in. We all want to be accepted and included within a group. I wish I knew then what I know now: None of us should have to compromise ourselves for the sake of the group.
In the fire service, our culture is deeply rooted on the premise of a brotherhood and sisterhood. Our 24-hour work schedule essentially creates a family unit living within the confines of a fire station that becomes our second home. As with any family, it can include a level of dysfunction. It’s easy to forget some of the basic, fundamental rules of a work environment with the level of comfort that comes from being a team. This can lead to problems that we hear about on the nightly news or read in the morning paper.
Today’s media constantly reports on individuals accused of poor behavior. As a society, we are becoming either desensitized by it or becoming hypersensitive to the issues. As a result, we are losing the ability to interact with others. This is not a female or a male issue; this is a societal issue that is affecting each and every one of us. This is affecting our children, and it will shape the future that they live in.
The fire service has evolved through the strength of leaders who are not afraid to have the uncomfortable conversations. Author Dr. Burton Clark has led many of those conversations, compiled in his book “I Can’t Save You, But I’ll Die Trying.” His passion to reduce firefighter injury and fatalities require us to take a hard look at how “we have always done it” and what we need to do to reduce our risk. I once listened to a lecture by Lexipol’s Gordon Graham, cringing as I heard the stark realities of the way most of our departments operate. That reality is that we struggle to have the tough conversations or make the changes necessary to reduce liability in our organizations. The truth is the hardest to hear.
The fire service often, unfortunately, makes great strides in cultural changes only after tragedy. Lessons learned by conducting after-action reviews result in policy changes, tougher standards and new codes. Throughout history we have pushed forward honoring the memory of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice. The Great Chicago Fire, the Coconut Grove Nightclub fire, the events of 9/11, and the Charleston Super Sofa Fire all brought change out of the ashes. The lessons we learn allow us to evolve and grow to avoid similar tragedies in the future.
Now, similar changes are needed within our workplace. We must learn from those who have been affected by harassment and bullying on both sides. Even if it’s uncomfortable, we must have a discussion on what is acceptable behavior and what is not. Our departments and crews are made up of unique individuals with varying backgrounds and beliefs. This is what makes us strong as an organization serving our diverse communities.
As we navigate today’s society, we, as fire service leaders, must talk about this important topic, and really listen to what is said. We need to ensure that everyone feels a sense of inclusion and safety within the workplace. We must protect the reputation of the fire service as one of most respected professions. Our future fire service will be stronger and more resilient with the solidarity of an inclusive, diverse workforce.
A professional fire service demands that these topics are discussed. When we listen to the misfortunes of others, we realize our own vulnerability. We all identify with them because we are all the same. We are brothers and sisters working to make a difference in our communities. We share a bond no matter what country we are from, or if we are male or female. We are firefighters.
At the end of the day, if all else fails, remember one of the great lessons of America’s Fire Chief Alan Bruniccini to just “Be Nice.”