Updated: Nov 13, 2022
This was never the blog post that I wanted to write, in fact, I’ve done everything in my power to avoid doing so. I gave you so many opportunities to correct the problem and you have failed me every single time. I’ve thought about letting this go and moving on, but what kind of advocate would I be if I can’t even stand up for myself and the other women on this department- the department that I have given nearly 5 years of my life to.
So, here I am, sharing MY story:
I have been working for this department since 2018 and used to love working here. Everyone I met was so welcoming and knowledgeable and wanted others to succeed but overtime things started to shift. Our workplace culture went from a family like atmosphere to a toxic atmosphere in a matter of 2 years. The fire department family I once had left the department for bigger and better things and the people who started to join were hired out of desperation and not because they were a good fit for our atmosphere.
Along with this shift of atmosphere, I noticed that certain behaviors were becoming more permissible and people were not being held accountable for their inappropriate actions. Whether that be harassment complaints, laziness, or mistakes that had lasting consequences these actions were not being addressed and our department standard began to plummet.
In September of 2020 I came into the office after cutting my finger open with a kitchen knife. I was supposed to work this evening, but instead, I was dropping off a doctor's note saying that I was not cleared for my shift. I went into one of my deputy chiefs offices and sat down and talked for a little bit before heading home. I remember getting into my car and seeing a notification pop-up on snapchat and noticed it was from my deputy chief. When I opened it I was surprised to read,”You shouldn’t be allowed to wear that to the office, it’s way too sexy.” I was confused and thrown off guard. It was the first time he had ever said anything like this to me. I was 23 and didn’t really know how to navigate a situation like this and remember saying “it’s just leggings and a t-shirt” to which he responded “but I’ve never seen you like this before.”
I decided to ignore it and things went back to normal for a few days until I woke up one morning to another message from him. I waited several hours to open the message because I was nervous about what the message was going to say. It appeared to be an innocent message- one where he asked me what I had planned for the day. When I said “nothing, why” and he responded with “my wife is out of town and my kids are at school I was going to ask if you wanted to come over for “coffee,” I realized it wasn't innocent at all. The worst part was that I still didn’t know what to do. What does a 23 year old say to her middle aged boss when he's trying to make sexual advances?
I messaged one of my friends explaining the situation and she didn’t really know what to do either. So, I continued to let it go and things actually seemed to go back to normal after that- at least he wasn't making direct sexual comments about how I looked or insinuating wanting to have sex with me. I would still receive occasional memes over the next several months that were sexual in nature, but at least they weren’t directed at me anymore.
In March of 2021, I was hanging out by our administration offices and stopped in his office to say hi and ask if he needed anything specific done during the day- something I asked all of our chiefs every morning. He said no and we ended up talking for a little while. Eventually, I asked if I was distracting him from his work and he said no. I wrapped up the conversation we were having and left his office.
About 10 minutes after leaving his office I received another notification on Snapchat. It said “you still had all of your clothes on.” I remember being so confused and had no idea what he was talking about or why he would bring that up so I sent him back “?” He responded saying that I wasn’t distracting him because I still had all of my clothes on. I ignored it at the time and he ended up coming up to me later during the shift and told me he didn’t want to say that out loud because there were too many people around.
I finally decided to tell a trusted individual about the things I was experiencing. It was embarrassing and uncomfortable and I didn’t know what to do. The person I confided in finally gave me enough courage to come forward with my complaint- which was not an easy decision to come to.
In May of 2021, my fire chief called me about something unrelated later that afternoon and made a comment about a recent article I had written about sexual harassment in the workplace. He said “if this kind of stuff is happening here I really need to know about it- especially if it involves my administrative staff.” I said “it is and it does and I really think we should sit down and talk about it.” No more than an hour later my chief walked in, said hi to me and my other coworkers, and then went into his office without giving me the opportunity to sit down with him and explain what was happening.
At this point I was angry and heartbroken. I felt like the department that had taught me to be a firefighter and paramedic had completely failed me- but this was only the beginning of many more failures.
On May 12th 2021, after my failed attempt at reporting my incident I was standing by the ambulance with a coworker when my deputy chief walked past me and placed his hand on my lower back to push past me. I remember being so uncomfortable but thinking I was over analyzing it- until my colleague witnessed it asked me if it made me uncomfortable.
After this, I started cutting back my hours. I found a better job working in a hospital that had a better work environment- one where I didn’t have to worry about being sexually harassed every time I would clock in.
In July of 2022, I received an email from my assistant chief and our human resource manager asking if they could call and ask me questions regarding an unrelated incident. During this phone call they asked me why no one reports incidents of harassment and that harassment cases can’t be handled if they’re not reported. I explained to them that based on my own experiences they’re either not handled appropriately or not handled at all. My assistant chief asked me for an example and I thought back to all of the times I was sexually harassed by my deputy chief and how unsupported I felt when I tried to report the incident.
I trusted my assistant chief at the time and knew that he would handle this case appropriately. A massive part of my complaint to them was that my fire chief failed to follow up on a harassment complaint that I tried to report months prior. I went into the office a few days later and provided detailed documentation of everything that had happened over the previous two years.
It appeared that my assistant chief started handling the complaint immediately- until my fire chief realized that he was under heat for not handling a complaint of such magnitude when it was initially brought to his attention. A few days later, my assistant chief contacted me and told me that he was being pulled off my investigation effective immediately. I, again, felt heartbroken and failed by my organization. After this, my fire chief took over as the primary investigator on this case.
I was not okay with this decision and decided to reach out to a member of our fire board. I explained the situation and how I did not want my fire chief leading the investigation because he was a massive part of my complaint. The board member assured me that this would be handled, but two weeks later at a follow up meeting I had with human resources, my fire chief was sitting in on that meeting continuing to lead the investigation.
Very few of their questions involved asking me about what I had experienced with the deputy chief who was harassing me, rather, they focused on questioning my character and whether or not I have ever had “inappropriate conversations with coworkers in the past” and if “I have ever had consensual relations with any colleagues previously” in attempt to undermine my character and justify the sexual, non-consensual harassment I was experiencing from my supervisor. I was also asked whether or not I would be comfortable working with my deputy chief to which I replied no. They asked me if I would be able to work with him in an “emergent” situation where he was the only one that would be able to cover a command shift and I told them if it was an emergent situation I would make it work. Putting my own conflicts aside to serve my community is a no-brainer but it is not a position that I would ever want to find myself in. At the end of this conversation, they told me I would not be privy to the outcome of the investigation and said they would reach out to me if they had any further questions.
A few weeks after this conversation another colleague of mine was placed on administrative leave for a much more minor complaint. He remained on administrative leave during an investigation period that lasted over three weeks while the chief that had sexually harassed me and was known to talk inappropriately to other young women on the department was allowed to remain on duty during this investigation.
To add insult to injury- our fire board sent out an email on October 14th saying that they had complete confidence in and fully supported our fire chief and that they appreciate his dedication to the growth and improvement of the fire department.
After an over 90 day investigation period I reached out to human resources and my fire chief to ask for an update. They contacted me a few days later VIA a phone conversation and told me that they had been monitoring the culture of the fire department over the last several months and have decided that no further action would be needed. They continued to tell me that they were officially closing my investigation.
I followed up with my two major witnesses who
Saw some of the inappropriate messages that my deputy chief had sent me
Saw my deputy chief inappropriately touch me while I was at work.
Neither of these witnesses were contacted or questioned about the investigation that they recently "investigated" and closed.
I struggle to find the words to explain how I have felt over the last several years while all of this has been happening and I struggle to sit back and pretend like none of this ever happened. As you’ve read, this experience is a very private and personal one and sharing it with the world was not an easy decision to come to, but I just couldn't let something like this go like they had hoped I would. It’s just a matter of time before something like this happens again to another young girl on our department.
This right here is why I work so hard to advocate and fight for a change in fire department culture. This right here is MY story, but there are thousands of others just like mine.