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Wash. fire dept. reviews efforts to address gender bias

“There is some progress with some of these issues, but it is extremely slow,” an anonymous Vancouver Fire Department firefighter said

By Katy Sword
The Columbian

VANCOUVER, Wash. — After a 2016 investigation revealed gender bias and cultural problems within the Vancouver Fire Department, Chief Joe Molina had this to say:

“We have to get better.”

Now, 17 months later, the chief points to improvements made in the wake of the report:

  • Stations were changed in ways the chief says better accommodates men and women working together.
  • The department hosted 12 anti-harassment trainings for new recruits, supervisors and line staff.
  • Another woman has been hired as a firefighter, bringing the total to six. There are 176 firefighters in the Vancouver Fire Department.

Still, the chief and at least one of the women acknowledge more needs to be done.

“There is some progress with some of these issues, but it is extremely slow,” said a female firefighter who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity. “It is a fight to get what little change we have and we continue to meet resistance from the city to make these very basic accommodations.”

The 2016 investigation pointed to systemic problems within the fire department’s culture that left women feeling unwelcome at best, and unsafe at worst in the male-dominated department.

The most egregious findings in the report suggest ongoing hostility toward women in the department. One woman reported pornographic magazines left around the station. Another reported her male colleagues would watch explicit television in the station, flipping it off as soon as she entered the room. Another reported her male co-workers took bets on how long it would be before she had sex with a colleague.

At Fire Station 5, the only woman assigned to the station was isolated by her co-workers and lied to about plans for the day so she missed group events.

Ill-fitting uniforms were another concern. Many stations also only had a single women’s restroom—if one at all —and beds were organized dorm style in a barrack-style open room. Firefighters work 24-hour shifts, which necessitates the need for living quarters.

Molina said he’s learned a lot in the last year about fostering an equitable work environment.

“I feel a little bit ashamed of myself for the women being here and experiencing this and it taking an incident to bring it to light,” he said.

The incident he refers to is a female firefighter using the women’s restroom at Station 10—which male colleagues had started using as their own in addition to the men’s room—and being walked in on by a male firefighter.

Molina spent about a year implementing infrastructure changes, ranging from placing a “Please Knock” sticker on the restroom door to installing privacy dividers around beds. Each station had a list of identified issues and how to resolve them. Stations 1 and 2 benefited the most from the process, as they were replaced with new facilities after the investigation was completed. Molina used the report’s findings to design the new station’s facilities, which resulted in single-user, gender-neutral restrooms.

Molina is proud of the changes that have been made, but acknowledged more is needed to bring the department and its facilities into the modern age.

“From a facility standpoint, we need to create this neutral environment so that any person, regardless of how they identify with gender, can use the facility,” he said.

Apart from the firefighter who spoke on condition of anonymity, one female firefighter agreed to speak on the record for this story: Capt. Heidi Parr.

A third declined to speak, citing her experience with the investigation. The remaining three did not return repeated requests for an interview.

Parr has worked with the Vancouver Fire Department for 16 years. She was the department’s first woman to be promoted to an officer position, and the second hired overall. Julie Ledoux, who retired as a firefighter in 2010, was the first.

For several years after Ledoux retired, Parr was Vancouver’s only female firefighter. She currently works at Station 9, located in the Bennington neighborhood in east Vancouver.

Her experience has been largely positive, she said.

“We’re like a family,” Parr said.

Parr said she didn’t have an issue with the way things were before the investigation.

“For me, all of it is structural changes,” Parr said.

But she knows her experience isn’t universal.

“I honestly felt bad because I felt I didn’t pave the way for the other women,” she said. “It didn’t occur to me that I should say something about working in a station with just one bathroom because we took turns. We respected each other and we had a system that worked.”

The changes that have occurred so far, however, she appreciates—such as having more restrooms and separate bedrooms.

“They’ve done a good job of really trying to modernize the station, for sure,” Parr said.

The anonymous female firefighter disagrees. She said despite management’s efforts, things are not yet fully resolved. Firefighters continue to struggle to get uniforms that fit, for example. Working in gear that doesn’t fit properly poses a safety hazard.

“There’s been an attempt to fix things, but it’s still problematic,” she said.

One standing issue for Parr is how separated the six female firefighters are. No women are assigned to the same shift and station. Unless someone fills in, female firefighters never work with each other.

“We talk occasionally,” she said. But that’s something Parr still wishes could be different.

Molina agrees that the department could be improved by adding more women to its staff. But he said he’s concerned the women already on staff feel they can’t express their personal viewpoints.

“The culture here has been: if you want to work here, you need to assimilate and become us (a man),” Molina said. “One woman has gotten along by largely shutting down her female perspective. If they’re all feeling like they need to act like a white male to work here, then I’m not getting that (diverse) perspective.”

He said as it relates to culture, there’s still work to be done.

At the very least, Molina wants to try to equalize the stations structurally.

“Society is changing, so no longer is it just about making sure everyone has an equal space, it’s about this whole way of being now that allows people to be themselves and have access to facilities that are not gendered,” he said.

Building yet another fire station that “entertained gender in only these two categories” seemed against the point, Molina added.

“If you’re going to build a fire station that’s going to be here 40 or 50 years, you’ve got to make that leap,” he said.

When news of the gender bias investigation broke in December 2016, Molina said he would reprimand staff as required.

“It’s time for us to take the culture to the next evolution and make the (next) 150 years even better,” he said at the time. “It’s about being professional and making sure everyone holds others accountable.”

He made good on that promise in at least one instance. In December 2017, a newly-appointed supervisor asked a female firefighter if she knew why men liked to hold the door open for women, adding that the reason was to look at “ladies’ butts.”

“I’m a butt guy,” the man then said, according to a complaint filed with the city.

Instead of corrective counseling—as is the norm—Molina said he demoted the supervisor.

“It’s important that they understand... it’s in my heart, I believe in it,” Molina said of the values learned during their harassment training.

Not everyone agreed with Molina’s decision, he said. But Molina said he wouldn’t tolerate such behavior from a staff member who’d already gone through anti-harassment training.

“He was in a position of leadership in this department. That was not a small thing,” Molina said. “For him to be a newly appointed leader and he does this, that tells me all I need to know, that he’s not ready to be a leader.”

Part of being a leader is advocating for change and growth. Molina wants to do just that through recruitment, but it’s easier said than done. The fire department doesn’t have a recruitment team so it’s largely up to current firefighters to encourage people to apply for jobs.

Molina offered an example. By happenstance, he overheard a young woman talking about wanting to join AMR as a paramedic. He asked her if she’d ever considered joining the fire department, instead.

“She didn’t even know it was an opportunity,” Molina said.

One of the complaints found in the investigation was that training standards were unfair.

"(Historically) you had to be Superman to work here,” Molina said. “That was the bar.”

A training exercise known as the 35-foot ladder throw posed an issue when some crews were being trained to complete it with only two firefighters. After the achievement standard was changed from two people to three for safety reasons, one captain reportedly asked his crew how they liked the “new women’s ladder throw,” according to the investigation. In another instance, a female recruit was pushed to the point of exhaustion during a training exercise and she injured herself.

Now, all stations are once again training to safe, defined department standards, Molina said, but there’s something about training smarter instead of harder.

“New studies pretty much have been telling us we’re doing it wrong,” he said. “Do we limit hiring to the thing you may never do, which is grab a person out of a burning building? Let’s look at the job on the whole.”

“A lot of what we do is medical calls. I think what I’ve seen is that female patients feel more comfortable talking to a woman paramedic,” Molina said. “I think there’s a benefit to that.”

The next steps for Molina and the department are open ended. With training in mind, Molina said he wants to bring more awareness to the value of diversity.

“As a leader of an organization, if you introduce diversity, with either gender or race, you’d like to think the organization is prepared for that,” he said. “That’s the training I want to give them.”

IAFF Local 452, the firefighter’s union, cites a focus on equality as a positive step forward in the months after the investigation.

“We will, of course, continue to keep a close eye out to ensure that the city fulfills their commitment to a safe and equitable workplace, but I am very confident that there will be no issues,” said Local 452 President Judson McCauley.

But the anonymous firefighter disagrees with the chief’s assessment, as well as that of the union.

“The city says they want a diverse workforce, but has not fully prepared for or made appropriate accommodations for female employees,” she said.

Although much of the identified infrastructure issues have been resolved or nearly resolved, other issues continue to surface. Appropriate receptacles and feminine hygiene product dispensers aren’t in the restrooms, for example. Molina said this issue wasn’t identified initially—and said city policy does not specify the features that facilities should have—but he said they’re evaluating what to do now. City policy is set by the Human Resource Department and the City Manager’s Office.

“My own wife was giving me advice because I didn’t understand it, but now I understand,” Molina said. “We’ll see what the city does as a whole, but at this point I need to lead.”

It’s difficult to measure the department’s success in making it a healthier workplace for women. While changes to facilities are tangible, improving Vancouver Fire Department’s culture is a different—and more complicated—matter.

“I think it’s a matter of keeping your eyes and ears open and making sure it’s on the forefront of everyone’s minds,” Molina said. “It’s an ongoing process to make sure we as supervisors, if you see something you correct it and make sure everyone understands it’s not who we are in Vancouver.”

If the department’s reputation improves enough, the chief hopes it could lead to more diverse applicants and things will exponentially improve.

“I also know not having a complaint doesn’t mean things are working,” he added. “It’s making sure to talk to staff and have continued conversations down to the line level.”

Copyright 2018 The Columbian