Fire departments rely on a paramilitary culture and chain of command to provide effective emergency response. But such a culture can often lead to problems.
An independent report commissioned by city council in Richmond, B.C., found the city’s fire department has a culture with “narrowly defined norms and little tolerance for conduct, attitudes or perspectives outside these norms.”
City council commissioned the external review of Richmond Fire-Rescue, including its hiring practices and harassment policies for its 200 firefighters, in April in response to public outcry after Richmond’s four female firefighters took leave from the department citing widespread sexual harassment.
The report, written by Vancouver lawyer Susan Paish, went on to state that “the culture must change to be more open to and understanding of the benefits of demographic diversity.”
One of the four women, Jeanette Moznik, is still on leave. She had filed a suit with the British Columbia Supreme Court last year alleging male firefighters cut off her water supply when she was battling a fire, put feces in her boots and pants and displayed hard-core pornography. Two other female firefighters, one of whom filed a complaint with the human rights tribunal, have returned to work in non-firefighting roles. The fourth woman has agreed to return to work in the future and hopes to be in on the front lines of firefighting again.
Paish interviewed 21 people who worked for or were connected with the fire department, including new and retired firefighters, as well as union and city hall officials, in an effort to understand why the situation was so dire and how it could be fixed.
The report doesn’t have the legal authority of a court ruling, arbitration hearing or even an independent commissioner’s report. But it has the potential to spark great change if used properly, said a Vancouver-based employment lawyer.
“The use of the report is truly limited to an internal sounding board for the use of the city administrator to develop a policy. It may come under attack because it doesn’t have the joint ownership of the union,” said Michael Weiler. He added that the real challenge is for the city to turn Parish’s analysis into workable rules and for the union to say: “Well those rules make sense. We can accept that.”
The report includes recommendations for in-depth training for the chief, deputy chiefs and battalion chiefs in areas such as conflict resolution and the value of diversity. Paish also recommended the recruitment pool be expanded beyond the typical firefighters’ network that often yields Caucasian men. All firefighters should also receive yearly training in non-technical topics such as teamwork and problem solving.
However, one of the biggest roadblocks Paish faced in analyzing the problems and coming up with solutions was getting the women who filed the complaints to participate in the process.
“There is stubbornness and self-righteousness attached to the behaviour of the three women firefighters who refused to participate in this review,” wrote Paish. “The refusal of the women to participate in the process suggests there is a real question as to whether these individuals are seriously interested in achieving meaningful resolution to their issues.”
The union is reserving full judgement on the report until city council unveils an action plan, said Tim Wilkinson, president of the International Fire Fighters Association Local 1286. The implementation plan, including a timeline, funding and priorities, should come back to council in September.
“When that comes, we’ll really know what we have,” he said.
The union is hopeful there will be a positive change, said Wilkinson.
“Our membership is always open to change,” he said. “We’re a very forward thinking union. If council comes back with a plan that is sound and makes sense, they’re going to embrace it.”
He said one of the biggest challenges for the department is to reach out to the communities that don’t traditionally see themselves as firefighters and get them interested.
The report’s other recommendations include:
•beefing up the management ranks by adding the battalion chiefs;
•creating a clear policy framework for all city staff that includes current employment standards and has discipline guidelines; and
•ensuring there are separate washrooms for women and men.
Paish recommended the development of the training plan be a priority for council. Even though a committee is still developing an action plan, Richmond’s communication manager Ted Townsend said planning for this training is going forward. He added that the city has already been working on installing separate washrooms for women in the fire halls.
Throughout her review, Paish was careful to point out that it was the media that had painted the whole of the department with the same brush, giving the perception that all the men play a direct or indirect role in the harassment.
She said there are “several significant strengths in (the department) that are rightly the source of pride,” and that throughout her interviews she found a willingness to change.
Townsend agreed. “We’ve always had a high level of confidence in the department and we’re quite proud of the service they provide, but there was obviously a need for change. The report shows that there’s support internally for change,” he said. “There’s no quick fix. We’re talking about changing cultural attitudes that have formed over decades. It’s going to take some time.”
While there’s a sense of optimism in city hall and in the union, Susan O’Donnell, the executive director of B.C.’s Human Rights Coalition, is more wary. She said there was a report several years ago with similar recommendations.
“But the fact of the matter is, it never gets done,” she said.
If the city and the fire department want to see an improvement, there has to be zero tolerance for inappropriate behaviour, she said. At a forestry company where O’Donnell has done some training, there were thousands of complaints about the language in the workplace. Finally management made a rule that employees would be fined if they swore.
“Funnily enough it worked. The culture is slowly being changed. What they were able to do was make people think before opening their mouths,” she said. “We have to make people think and feel before they act and say things.”
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