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Sexual assault against fire/EMS providers: Talk about it

Define what behaviors are off limits and what to do if an assault against emergency responders does occur


Unwanted sexual attention or contact is not only a problem for women in the fire service; men experience it as well.


Years ago, I was eating lunch at a fire conference, sitting at a table of seven female firefighters and one male who was a fire service leader at the national level. As we exchanged stories, one woman at the table mentioned that she had recently been sexually groped by a family member during an EMS response.

Another woman responded that she had once been sexually assaulted by a patient in the back of an ambulance en route to the hospital. Another woman chimed in about how a business owner had sexually propositioned her during a fire inspection.

By the time the conversation turned to other subjects, it was apparent that every woman sitting at that table had had some type of unwanted sexual experience with members of the service community while on the job. Every single one.

The one man at the table was dumbfounded. He could hardly believe what he was hearing. “How could I not know about this?” he asked.

He didn’t know because people don’t talk about it. But they should.

Potential for violence against first responders

There are many potential dangers facing firefighters and EMS providers during emergency response. There are physical dangers, as well as emotional and psychological ones that can linger with someone for a long time. In some cases, first responders are just beginning to talk about these dangers. But no one is talking about sexual assault.

Unwanted sexual attention or contact is not only a problem for women in the fire service. Men experience it as well. And despite the inevitable jokes, they don’t like it any more than women do.

But women may be more vulnerable, for several reasons. Sometimes, women are put into the caretaker role on calls – comforting family members, being a supportive presence. They may welcome this role and excel at it, but being in that role also puts them at risk for those who would exploit them. My worst experience was at the hands (literally) of the elderly husband of a woman who had just had a massive stroke. His wife was dying, and all he could think of was copping a feel. Who would have thought?

Women may also be targeted for both being too powerful or too vulnerable. A woman who looks young and seems unassertive can be a target for someone who wants to abuse power. On the other hand, people may also want to put powerful women “in their place.” As an officer, I was once on a fire inspection and was explaining the violations to the business owner. He responded by saying, “What will you do to me if I don’t do this? Spank me?”

No one should have to put up with this kind of treatment in any workplace, but it is especially galling to be victimized in this way when there to help people in their time of need. But firefighters and EMS providers don’t get to choose their calls or their patients. Some of them will be impaired, altered or just bad people who will want to hurt those who are trying to help them.

Sharing incidents of abuse with other emergency responders

The most important way to respond to this reality is to talk about it. Talk about the fact that women and men in emergency services, and especially in EMS, may be blindsided by unwanted sexual attention or even assault.

  • Discuss prevention.
  • Preplan what to do if it happens.

Make clear to everyone on the job that such behavior is not OK, and that department members do not just have to put up with it.

One way I changed my behavior after my bad experience was to not allow any physical contact with members of the public unless I initiated it. In the past, I had sometimes allowed family members to put an arm around me or hug me, thinking I was providing essential comfort to them. And maybe I was, but this is also how I was assaulted, by someone taking advantage of my openness to this behavior. I didn’t preclude physical contact from then on, but I called the shots.

The other critical thing to do in responding to this issue is to talk about it not only theoretically, but also when it happens. It is well known that most sexual assaults are never reported, in part because the victim feels somehow responsible or ashamed. Such a response just empowers those who will abuse others.

So talk about it. Right away. As we were driving away from that medical response, I said to my crew, “Do you know what that guy just did to me on that call?” My crew was outraged on my behalf – it was all I could do to keep them from going back to confront the guy. But feeling their support and anger did a lot to erase the bad feelings I otherwise had. It helped me to keep things in perspective and know they had my back.

I also included the encounter in my incident report, but realistically, I did not expect anything to come of that. It still felt good to say the words, make it official.

Many firefighters – male and female – have had awkward, invasive, abusive or even borderline criminal things happen to them while doing their jobs. Carrying these incidents of abuse alone can lead to bigger problems down the line. Don’t do it. If something bad happens to you, tell others about it. As we found out that day at lunch, there is much power in sharing the experience.

Linda Willing is a retired career fire officer and currently works with emergency services agencies and other organizations on issues of leadership development, decision making, and diversity management through her company, RealWorld Training and Consulting. She is also an adjunct instructor and curriculum advisor with the National Fire Academy. Linda is the author of On the Line: Women Firefighters Tell Their Stories. She has a bachelor’s degree in American studies, a master’s degree in organization development and is a certified mediator. Linda is a member of the FireRescue1/Fire Chief Editorial Advisory Board. To contact Linda, e-mail