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It pains me to have to write an article about this issue, but with the recent widely viewed broadcast of a Supreme Court nominee accused of sexual assault when the perpetrator and victim were both in high school and the current state of affairs related to women and minorities in this country; it is an article that needed to be written addressing the elephant in the room.

As a father of five (5) daughters, all adults with their own families and lives, I feared for their safety as young adults navigating the difficulties of being a girl in a masculine society. Any assault, groping or other sexual overtures against them are a closely held secret among them and remains that way even today. I assume the worst and pray for the best.

As a Deputy Fire Chief, I was responsible for the lives and safety of all of my firefighters as well. Creating an environment free from harassment, intimidation, discrimination and other such harmful behavior was as much important as creating a safe emergency scene.

Sexual assault against women and even men is as old as time itself, where the victims of these crimes went silent about the assaults and aftermath. An event deeply buried in their memories, haunting them for a lifetime. One of the most often heard reasons for not disclosing the assault, is that “no one would believe me”, “it was my fault” and “what can I do about it now?”

Empowering women to come forward to report these assaults or at least talk about it without the shame and stigma has always been a struggle for those sexually assaulted finally came into the national focus with the MeToo movement in 2006 with the phrase used by Tarana Burke to empower women of color through empathy, especially young and vulnerable women who have experienced sexual abuse, particularly within underprivileged communities.

In October 2017, Alyssa Milano encouraged using the phrase as a hashtag to help reveal the extent of problems with sexual harassment and assault by showing how many people have experienced these events themselves. Women make up approximately 51% of the US population and 1 in 3 have reported sexual assault and are unable to talk about it. Men also have experienced sexual assaults (1 in 6) and also are unable to talk about it.

Since this empowering movement occurred, many women, and some men, have stepped forward declaring #MeToo in all disciplines of our workforce to include the, military, banking, technology, politics and government, sports, medicine, and in the Catholic Church.

In our own sexually segregated industry (with only 3.5% of all career firefighters women) there are far too many #MeToo experiences that have been revealed through court filings and the media with sexual assault charges against fire chiefs, fire officers and firefighters brought to the light by those assaulted.

As members of the fire service, we have an obligation and a duty to protect the women and men in our service as they are our sisters, brothers, sons and daughters, nieces and nephews. Would you be outraged if you came home from a shift and found your son or daughter crying declaring they have been sexually assaulted, harassed or intimidated?

We cannot control other industries or those workers in their actions, however, we can control our own industry and prevent the seemingly incessant reporting’s of bad sexual behavior on the part of our staff and firefighters.

Many of you reading this article will say, it does not happen in my fire station or in my home or community. Believe me it does as those assaulted, harassed, groped or raped will not say anything until years later, if ever. A 2017 poll by ABC News and The Washington Post found that 54% of American women report receiving "unwanted and inappropriate" sexual advances with 95% saying that such behavior usually goes unpunished. The report underscores the need for men to intervene when they witness demeaning behavior.

One of the issues reported is the imbalance of power between men and women in the fire station. A 2014 NFPA study reveals that the fire service is predominately male and Caucasian. Women make up 3.5% of the career fire service and 7% overall including volunteers and about 9.5% Hispanic or Latino, about 8% black and .07% Asian firefighters. Of the approximately 345,000 firefighters in the career services, there are no accurate number of women firefighters who are fire officers, especially at the Assistant, Deputy or Chief level. We do know there are nearly not enough.

One of the preventative measures starts with self-education and respect for others. Read about the #MeToo movement and begin to understand the issues and ensure you respect those around you and with whom you work. No one deserves the feeling of coming to work and worry that “I may be the next victim”, or I have to work with that officer or firefighter who continually harasses me for sexual favors or have to endure the pictures, posters, magazines or videos in the fire station. Our profession is dangerous enough without that worry.

Some suggestions to prevent a #MeToo fire in your organization:

  • It begins with the respect you should have for another and if you see bad behavior occurring in your station, say something and do something. We cannot be silent witnesses to bad behavior in others
  • Develop clear and enforceable policy taught to all employees including anti-discrimination, anti-harassment and anti- retaliation with clear internal reporting mechanisms, more effective and proactive disciplinary measures.
  • Every member of the organization must be accountable and responsible for a safe environment.
  • Expose and hold accountable those who assault and harass and do not enable and bury the event in silence letting members of the organization know there will be consequences changing future behavior.
  • Create a culture that encourages employees to be open about serious problems.
  • If there is an event, hire qualified outside counsel or an independent person to investigate any complaints that is outside the influence of the chain of command. Take strong and definitive action if there is a validated event.
  • When doing annual performance evaluations, ask the employee if they are aware of any policy violation including sexual harassment, assault, groping, comment or innuendo of a sexual or harassing nature towards a fellow employee; or if they have been a victim of such behavior.
  • Create an atmosphere in the organization where there is a safe and confidential avenue to report these events and ensure confidentiality. Allow observers to report bad behavior as well and follow-up on all complaints
  • Active and aggressive recruitment of women and other minorities increasing the number of qualified applicants to our service which may serve to reduce the number of #MeToo events.

The fire service is a hyper masculine version of the greater culture. It is resistant and slow to change due to tightly held and highly defended traditions. We continue to offer technical solutions with simplified responses to a highly complex and adaptive problem. The world has and is changing fast, but we are not.

We all work with someone’s daughter, son, wife or husband in our profession and we may have sons, daughters or spouses working in our chosen profession. Respect those we work with and work on reducing the number of #MeToo events affecting our firefighters.

Endnotes

  • Guerra, Cristela (October 17, 2017). "Where'd the "Me Too" initiative really come from? Activist Tarana Burke, long before hashtags - The Boston Globe". Boston Globe.
  • Ohlheiser, Abby (October 19, 2017). "The woman behind 'Me Too' knew the power of the phrase when she created it – 10 years ago". The Washington Post.
  • Radu, Sintia (October 25, 2017). How #MeToo has awoken women around the world. US News.
  • Chapin, Angelina (October 16, 2017). "The problem with asking women to say 'Me Too'". HuffPost.
  • Zillman, Claire (October 17, 2017). "A new poll on sexual harassment suggests why 'Me Too' went so insanely viral". Fortune.
  • "From Politics to Policy: Turning the Corner on Sexual Harassment - Center for American Progress". Center for American Progress. January 31, 2018.
  • From #MeToo to Now What? 7 Actions that could actually help stop sexual harassment. By Claire Zillman, October 20, 2017, Fortune

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

John K. Murphy, J.D. M.S, PA-C, EFO, a career firefighter beginning his fire service as a Firefighter/Paramedic and retiring as a Deputy Fire Chief after 32 years of service. Mr. Murphy is an attorney licensed in Washington whose focus is on firefighter health & safety, firefighter risk management, employment practices liability, employment policy, internal investigations, expert witness and litigation support and consulting on risk management for fire departments. He is a practicing Physician Assistant with a focus on Occupational Medicine and was a Navy Corpsman with the Marine Corps.

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