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Pinnacle EMS Quick Take: Why public safety leaders must have zero-tolerance for sexual misconduct

Police sergeant challenges and educates EMS leaders to do more to reduce the risk and occurrence of sexual harassment for all employees


Sexual harassment is a pervasive workplace problem. Detective Sergeant Jacqueline Jefferies, Niagara Regional Police Service in Ontario, Canada, called on leaders attending the Pinnacle EMS conference to make significant change to their organization’s culture.


PHOENIX — Sexual harassment has a tremendous negative and costly impact on individuals and organizations, including public safety agencies. Detective Sergeant Jacqueline Jefferies, Niagara Regional Police Service in Ontario, Canada, described the scope of the problem and called on leaders attending the Pinnacle EMS conference to make significant change to their organization’s culture.

Sexual harassment is a pervasive workplace problem. According to the World Health Organization, one-third of all women have been victims of sexual violence, and 95 percent of the violence and unwanted sexual attention goes unpunished. There are many costs associated with sexual harassment, but the most significant cost to organizations is the frequent loss of an employee who quits a hostile workplace.

Jefferies, who has spent more than half of her 23-year career as an investigator specializing in child abuse, sexual assault and domestic violence, outlined specific leadership actions that paramedic chiefs and EMS leaders should take to ensure their organization is in front of this important issue.

Memorable quotes on culture change

Jeffries pointedly called on leaders to do more to change the culture in emergency services to reduce the prevalence of sexual harassment and reduce the risk of it happening. Here are four memorable quotes from her presentation.

“I am giving a police perspective (on sexual harassment), but I understand this topic has no boundaries.”

“Everyone in this room knows a woman who has been a victim of sexual harassment or violence in the workplace. It’s time to make change happen.”

“In emergency services, people will retaliate by actions or words.”

“It’s not OK to not do anything. See something, say something like, ‘I didn’t find that joke funny.’”

Top takeaways on ending sexual harassment in emergency services

Here are four top takeaways on the topic of sexual harassment, policies for public safety organizations and the need for leaders to do more.

1. Sexual harassment is unwelcome workplace misconduct

A sexual harasser is a person of power who has control over the victim. Harassers can be a supervisor, coworker or non-employee. In all cases, the harasser’s conduct must be unwelcome to the victim.

It’s important to remember that the workplace is not just inside the ambulance, at the station or in the training center. The workplace is anywhere two or more employees are gathered, which means harassment can occur at the hospital, at an informal social gathering at the bar or at a private fitness center frequented by employees.

2. Leaders need to know applicable federal and state laws

Jefferies noted that there are variable definitions of sexual harassment in state and federal law. What all definitions have in common is that the perpetrator’s conduct is “unwelcome” by the victim.

Two types of harassment are codified in U.S. law:

  1. Quid pro quo is easier to investigate and prove.
  2. Hostile work environment is less often litigated and very difficult to prove.

To prove sexual harassment requires demonstrating a reasonable person would find the harasser’s actions and behaviors to be unwelcome and discriminatory in action.

3. Receiving a sexual harassment complaint

When a supervisor, manager or chief receives a complaint of sexual harassment, Jefferies instructed attendees to:

  1. Follow the organization policy for documenting and investigating.
  2. Assume the complaint is valid while it is investigated.
  3. Ensure that policy-directed consequences for retaliation are swiftly and decisively enforced.
  4. Appreciate and recognize the courage and risk it took the victim to report a harassment complaint.

4. Sexual harassment policy components

A sexual harassment policy for a police department, fire department or EMS agency must include these minimum components:

  1. Prohibition on sexual harassment.
  2. Instructions for reporting.
  3. Prohibition on retaliation for reporting.
  4. Consequences of engaging in harassment.
  5. Consequences for knowingly making a false report.

Throughout the presentation, Jeffries called on the audience to do something different and act with a sense of urgency. As leaders, there is a lot more that can be done to make an impact and improve the work environment for all employees. Public safety leaders must be willing to stand up for social change and make it clear that this type of behavior won’t be tolerated in their organizations.

“Your friends, your coworkers need you to lead,” Jeffries said.

Learn more about sexual harassment

Jeffries shared the powerful October 2016 video of RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson apologizing for the failure of the RCMP to protect its personnel from discrimination, bullying and harassment while serving in the Mounties.

After watching the video, learn more about sexual harassment prevention and investigation with these articles from EMS1.

Greg Friese, MS, NRP, is the Lexipol Editorial Director, leading the efforts of the editorial team on Police1, FireRescue1, Corrections1 and EMS1. Greg served as the EMS1 editor-in-chief for five years. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a master’s degree from the University of Idaho. He is an educator, author, national registry paramedic since 2005, and a long-distance runner. Greg was a 2010 recipient of the EMS 10 Award for innovation. He is also a three-time Jesse H. Neal award winner, the most prestigious award in specialized journalism, and the 2018 and 2020 Eddie Award winner for best Column/Blog. Connect with Greg on LinkedIn.