Women Firefighters Are Battling More Than Flames
For elite women firefighters on mostly male crews, harassment, and the expectation to keep it secret, is a danger as real as burning wildlands and toxic smoke.
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I was working on a fire with my Type II contract fire-fighting crew in New Mexico, sitting in a grassy field awaiting directions from our boss when three vehicles pulled up: two buggies (short buses) and a large pickup with a water tank on the back. Out of the backs of the buggies poured 20 exceptionally dirty men all dressed in identical green Nomex pants, black shirts, and black hats embroidered with their crew name and insignia. There were no women. I asked my squad boss who they were. “Those are ‘hotshots,’” he said. Hotshots are elite wildland firefighters who show up as the initial attack against fires, work the longest shifts, make the most money, and are usually gone all summer working on various fires, sometimes accruing over 1,000 hours of overtime. My boss scoffed when I expressed interest in the job. “Girls don’t do that,” he said. He was wrong.
Within two years, in 2001, I began work on a United States Forest Service hotshot crew stationed out of California (known as Region 5). It was immediately clear that I had entered a crew culture that deemed women inferior. One of my squad bosses said, “I know many of you haven’t worked with women before. What you need to know is that women’s lungs are smaller. They can’t take in as much oxygen as you,” and explained that women were physically weaker than men. Some of the men I worked with commented on my appearance within the first day of my arrival. Although everyone was required to go through sexual-harassment training, which consisted primarily of a video, it was greeted with much eye-rolling. It detailed scenarios acted out in an office setting, with dialogue asking things like, “Is it okay for Bob to rub Heather’s shoulders without permission?” to which we all said “No,” and laughed. But we didn’t work in an office, and our work place wasn’t held together by specific boundaries beyond the rules of fighting fire. This left minority groups susceptible to extreme isolation, and made it easier to keep secrets.
I knew, through the rumor mill, that our superintendent was a misogynist, although I didn’t yet know that word—I was 21, and hadn’t had access to a good education. The crew hadn’t hired a woman in years, most of my new colleagues had never worked with a woman, and it was explicitly stated that I was brought on to meet a quota, which added to many crew members’ assumptions that I wasn’t really qualified to be there.
It wasn’t shoulder-rubbing that happened to me: within the first month I got used to my superintendent separating me out by calling me “girl” when he addressed the entire crew as “guys” and also became accustomed to doing the crew “office work.” I was often called off the fire line simply to fill out timesheets because I had “nice girly handwriting.” In small, seemingly subtle ways, I was treated differently, and some of my fellow crew-members became resentful. Because I was occasionally pulled off the line, I was seen as inessential to the crew or incapable of doing the brute work expected of me, although I worked incredibly hard and always volunteered for the jobs no one liked, such as carrying the 45-pound bag of water we called a “piss pump,” or carrying huge, clunky cans of gas and diesel mixture. But slowly, this treatment worked on me, too. I began to fear that I was inferior, although, by mid-season, I was passing about half of my peers on our PT hikes. I compensated by accruing my own list of dirty jokes I could tell, even though they made me uncomfortable, and making sure the men I worked with knew I was “one of the guys,” so they wouldn’t ostracize me. I promised they could “be themselves” around me, which meant putting up with demeaning language, and jokes that often insulted and sexualized women. Whenever my facade wavered I was met with intense anger. Once, when I asked one of my squadmates to put away his copy of Hustler, he yelled, “Fuck no,” and told me I couldn’t tell him what to do, then proceeded to continue reading it in front of me, despite there being a full and graphic photograph of women’s genitalia. I internalized his anger and told myself it was my problem. I was too uptight. This internalization was supported by my peers, many of whom told me to be less emotional and not take things so personally.
After one season, I was given a permanent position on the crew. I became a full-time employee with benefits, including health insurance. As someone who’d grown up poor, this was a milestone. But the work environment became nearly intolerable, not because of the physical expectations so much as the antagonism from colleagues. A fellow crew-member, one I’d considered a close friend, began to stalk and harass me after I’d confided to him that my partner and I had broken up. He shared details of my private life with our co-workers, followed me on fires and criticized my work. While we were on a fire, I confronted him and threatened to go to human resources, hoping that would scare him off. I’d been advised to do this by a woman who worked on the same forest. She’d also warned me that if I threatened to go to HR there “would likely be retaliation.”
There was. Two of the men I worked with overheard me and cornered me days later in one of our vehicles, looming over me as I cowered in my seat, yelling at me, accusing me of trying to destroy my stalker’s career. Two other co-workers sat silently by. I told my superintendent I felt unsafe—he laughed it off. I no longer felt that the men I worked with had my back, and several of my crew-mates wouldn’t speak to me, even though our job required clear communication. The woman who encouraged me to stand up for myself eventually went to HR herself, and filed a formal complaint against my superintendent (over another matter). He was asked to retire with full benefits. She was not the only woman to file a complaint against him, and she also faced retaliation. I did go to HR with my complaint, but I was discouraged from filing a formal claim. The women in HR said it could hurt my career. Instead of filing, I quit the crew before the end of my second season and gave up my permanent position.
In a traditional work environment, an employee goes home after an eight-hour day and has weekends off. In wildland firefighting, this isn’t the case. Crews can be gone for 21 days at a time, often camping out in the backcountry, away from cell service and other resources. They come home for two or three days and then return to the field. Because of this, women are much more vulnerable, especially if they’re the only woman on the crew. If they speak up and face retaliation, they are marooned by the very people they count on to protect their lives in dangerous situations. Women who speak up sleep in the woods every night near the very people who may have abused them, and their supporters. The consequences they face can vary: their training may be withheld, they may face hazing, snide sarcastic comments, silent treatments, insults, unwanted physical touching; their bags may be mysteriously heavy, having been filled with rocks, or their their hard hats or gloves (items that are essential to a firefighter’s safety) may disappear. If they’re a vulnerable seasonal employee, they may be blocked from applying for their position in the next season, or not be rehired. If they’re a permanent employee, their supervisor can give them negative performance reviews and request for them to be transferred, or even fired. All this, simply for being a woman who stands up for herself.
I eventually worked on two other hotshot crews (another in Region 5 and one in Colorado, which is known as Region 2) and a helicopter for the Park Service in Alaska. After leaving the first hotshot crew I never experienced the same level of harassment, and I believe this is because I worked on crews where there were other women working with me and the superintendents weren’t “old boys,” as mine had been previously. But I did experience more “mundane” forms of harassment. I was called pushy when I asked for the same training as my peers. Rumors about my sexual activity were spread amongst crew members. I watched the men I worked with consistently break the rules and go unpunished, while I followed them to the letter and still got scrutinized. When a superior on one crew invited me to his house for wine and I declined, he began writing me up for wearing sunglasses that were “too big” and for painting my nails, despite neither of these things being against the rules. He watched me closely, waiting for me to mess up, and I left after one season. That superior is now a superintendent on a California hotshot crew.
When I spoke to my friend Elizabeth*, who worked with me in Colorado and just finished up a near–decades-long career as a smokejumper, she said that “many of the stories (of harassment) have come from women who have worked on crews in California, a state known for its progressiveness.” She says, “women are often the victims of harassment or discrimination because they’re an easy target. A superior has the ability to hold an employee’s job in jeopardy if they speak up or refuse any sexual advances. Often seasonal employees … are targeted because they have no protection. When they do speak up, the process (of filing a complaint) is so cumbersome that it leaves the door open to retaliation by a superior.”
Elizabeth goes on to explain the process of reporting an incident through the USFS, and why it isn’t working: “There is a hotline … the perpetrator is kept anonymous throughout the investigation and after they have been found guilty. I believe this can lead to crews perpetually abusing and remaining hostile to women. The woman usually leaves, and the accused can stay in place and repeat the cycle.” In essence, the abusers, often high-ranking, remain in their positions and continue to perpetuate the toxic culture of their crew or department. When perpetrators are removed from their positions, they’re often transferred or allowed to retire with benefits, all paid for by taxpayers.
A recent PBS NewsHour report cites that women make up only 13 percent of the US Forest Service Fire Service, and yet they spoke with 34 women who claimed they had faced “gender discrimination, sexual harassment, and in some cases, sexual assault and rape in the USFS.” Many claimed that they faced retaliation when they reported their experiences. There are currently around 7,553 fire employees, and it’s highly probable that, out of the 890 women working in fire (as of 2017), more that 34 have faced harassment.
The USFS is structured to support abusers, not victims, making it almost impossible to report incidents safely, much less find justice or any satisfying resolution. Women are actively encouraged not to report incidents: I experienced this on all the crews I worked on, and have seen this happen even in an online support forum for female firefighters. “Is it really worth reporting?” someone comments under a picture of a lewd note scrawled on a pack of batteries. The underlying meaning of this question is: is it really worth the retaliation you will inevitably face? “The person who complains becomes the trash,” says Abby Bolt, in the same NewsHour video. She’s a battalion chief from California, describing what happens when women come forward with complaints. When women do report, they eventually have to go through an EEO officer, and claims can take years to process. Often the outcome leaves the victim vulnerable and the perpetrator safe. The unspoken rule in fire is that women are invading a man’s world, and if they can’t excel at their job (i.e., be better than most of the men they work with) and put up with the macho and sexist culture, they don’t belong there, and should go home.
One woman I communicated with detailed that, after two years of working as a seasonal employee in California, she was at a party with her unit and was raped by one of her co-workers. She never filed a complaint. Several other women contacted me, wanting to share their stories. Most of them have never filed a formal complaint, and some of them described themselves as being “blacklisted” from certain regions or states if they did speak up, a claim echoed by another woman in the NewsHour piece. Many of them said they loved fighting fire, and didn’t want to leave, but felt unwelcome.
Elizabeth also suggests that (when incidents are reported) “the perpetrator should be made known to the agency and lose their job, but what happens more often is that the employee gets transferred to a different district.” I believe it’s this reticence to publicly conduct an investigation that keeps this particular system in place: the women are the ones who are vulnerable while their (mostly male) perpetrators are protected, even if they are found guilty.The USFS, as a government agency, wants to keep everything under wraps, and therefore avoids naming perpetrators at all costs, and instead keeps them employed.
The Forest Service’s own former Chief, Tony Tooke, resigned amid reports of sexual harassment. Interim Chief Vicki Christenson has already implemented a full day of training for all Forest Service Employees. In an online forum, women who work for the Forest Service discussed the training, which was called Stand Up For Each Other. It seemed that there were no exact guidelines; the women reported some supervisors condensing it into three hours, some holding it in a large group (inhibiting the likelihood that employees would speak candidly). One woman suggested that the units who needed it most (the ones with highest reported incidents of harassment) didn’t take the sessions seriously. Some women said the sessions went well, and that several people felt safe enough to speak up in a group setting. Some units handled the training with reverence and importance, while others dismissed it as just another unnecessary hoop to jump through.
Elizabeth also spoke of several positive experiences she and other women she knows have had as firefighters, and said that ultimately, in her career, she hadn’t experienced many forms of sexual harassment from the men she worked with. There are many women she works with who feel the same, which suggest that the issue isn’t a consistent toxic culture in the US Forest Service, but that the culture varies from station to station, region to region, and unit to unit, depending on who your supervisors are. But those supervisors that are harassing and assaulting women are going unpunished and continuing to create toxic environments in their units and on their crews. The solution should be simple: listen to the accusers and fire perpetrators. But when the perpetrators are gone, what about the culture they have left in their wake, where their subordinates, mostly male, were allowed to retaliate against the women who spoke out against them, and haze and intimidate women for supposedly invading their territory? What do we do to address the gaps left behind, and begin to change the culture?
The GROW seminar was implemented by several Region-5 USFS employees, and, unlike the Stand Up For Each Other training, is a well thought-out three day conference, with breakout sessions consisting of workshops and panels with subjects like “Diverse Workforce: Take a Walk with Me,” and “Influencing Each Other in Positive Ways.” GROW is focused on education and provides three full days of intensive exposure to many cultural concepts that may be new to firefighters, such as gender roles and equality, the side effects of PTSD, compassionate leadership, and off-duty drinking and misconduct. The training is meant to mix several units, so that those from more problematic units can intermingle with more inclusive ones, all while going through the intensive training.
If the USFS begins to take serious action against perpetrators, protect women who speak out, and implements thorough training programs similar to GROW, the agency could begin making big strides towards creating a safer and more inclusive workplace, not just for women, but for everyone. Without doing this, women will continue to face consequences simply because they want to be treated with respect in a male-dominated field.
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