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Report: Changes needed in ‘male-dominated’ fire department

January 8, 2019

BOSTON (AP) — Women are chronically underrepresented in the Boston Fire Department and at times subject to a work environment that includes “male banter” and “locker room talk,” according to a report commissioned for city officials after recent allegations of discrimination.

In response, Mayor Marty Walsh said Tuesday he would propose several steps, including a firefighter cadet program to recruit and train more female firefighters, while developing a “strategy for changing the culture and implementing a welcoming and respectful work environment in all firehouses.”

A Boston firefighter was charged last year with sexually assaulting a female colleague, and at least three sexual harassment claims have been filed with the state’s anti-discrimination agency in recent years.

Lawsuits alleging harassment against female firefighters have been filed in several other states, the report noted, some resulting in financial settlements with plaintiffs. The U.S. Department of Justice sued Houston in February after two female firefighters complained of hostile work environments. City officials disputed the allegations and said they would not tolerate discrimination.

In Boston, only 16 of the department’s about 1,500 firefighters — or 1 percent — are women, according to the report prepared by the Boston law firm of Stoneman, Chandler & Miller. There have been only 30 women who have served in Boston since its first female firefighter was hired in 1984.

The report notes that women are underrepresented in fire departments across the U.S., making up about 4 percent of firefighters. Boston’s lower numbers were in line with other big cities where emergency medical services operate separately from the fire department.

While there has been progress in the treatment of women, “the lack of a critical mass of female firefighters results in a male dominated department with male banter/“locker room talk” frequently occurring in firehouses without a regularly assigned female firefighter,” the report stated.

Currently, women are permanently assigned to nine of the city’s 33 firehouses but are often called upon to temporarily work in other locations where the environment is “not as welcoming, professional and respectful as their normally assigned firehouses.”

The most serious case in Boston involves criminal charges that are pending against a firefighter who was accused last January of sexually assaulting a female colleague after she returned to a firehouse to retrieve something she had forgotten.

Two cases alleging sexual harassment have been filed in the past 15 months and remain pending before the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, according to the report. MCAD dismissed a third sexual harassment complaint in 2014 but determined the firefighter who complained had been subjected to retaliation.

The report credited Boston officials with an overall commitment to diversity in hiring and said Fire Commissioner Joseph Finn had already taken some positive steps since being hired by Walsh in 2014, including anti-harassment training and making the bathrooms and sleeping quarters in firehouses more private for women. It also noted that most women serving have reported feeling safe in their normal work locations.

The state’s strict civil service rules, residency requirements for city employees and preference given to hiring veterans for fire department jobs were cited in the report as obstacles to increasing the number of women in the fire department.

The proposed cadet program, similar to one that exists in the Boston Police Department, would help to create a larger pool of female candidates for the fire department, Walsh said. The Legislature would have to approve such a program before it can be instituted.

Only one woman was among the city’s 54 newest firefighters sworn in to their jobs last week.

“We’ve already made improvements within the past six months to several issues of concern to our female firefighters, such as updating the bathroom policy and addressing uniform issues,” said firefighter Margaret Connolly, the female liaison to the department, in a statement. “We have increased our recruitment and outreach efforts to female candidates, and will continue to do so.”

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