Woman Fire Fighters Get No Respect

By Sydney H. Schanberg
New York Newsday, September 2, 1986

This is my Labor Day column. It is about honest toil and the proper respect for it. Specifically, it is about the need to respect equally the equal work of men and women wherever it is performed — in this instance as city employees in uniform.

A decade or so ago, women fought their way into our police force, overcoming resistance that was only slightly less nasty than that encountered by black recruits a few years earlier. Eventually, things became calmer and more professional.

The Corrections Department, to its credit, is said to have made the transition toward sex integration with a good deal more grace.

The first two women ever hired for street work by the Sanitation Department began their service only last week, so the results there won’t be known for a while.

But over in the Fire Department, though women came in, by court order, four years ago and it is thus reasonable to expect that by now the tensions would have eased, such is not the case.

The handful of women fire fighters are still experiencing acts of harassment and intimidation, ostracism by shunning and insults administered by obscene notes pasted to their lockers. Sometimes they are “put out of meals” — meaning they are not allowed to eat with the rest of the personnel in their firehouse. This is a particularly corrosive act, because the common meals are viewed by fire officers as a key tool in the building of teamwork, camaraderie and trust.

Black firemen, when their baptism into the department took place in the 1960s, used to be “put out of meals.” And thought this may no longer happen to them, the memory of the insults is fresh enough to have made the Vulcan Society, the organization that represents the department’s 588 black members, a source of alliance and support for the women. 

There are only 38 women on the force of 12,500 — 29 of them in firehouse on field duty, with the others assigned such tasks as building inspections and community relations. All of them are from the initial list of those who qualified four years ago as an outgrowth of the first federal court order in the women’s 7-year-old — and ongoing — class-action suit.

No women have been hired since then, because the Fire Department produced a new entry examination that a federal judge threw out both as unfair to women and not providing a true test of fire-fighting skills. The Fire Department, represented by the city’s corporation counsel and joined by the fire-fighters union, has appealed the ruling. So there will be no increase in the women’s numbers until the litigation is resolved.

A more fundamental issue is whether there will be any improvement in the workplace attitudes toward the existing 38 women.

The women, incidentally, do not say that the whole barrel is rotten. They cite bright spots — firehouses whose crews are more enlightened than others, officers who have educated their men instead of acquiescing silently in the harassment. They note, on a personal level, that one of the women married a male colleague earlier this year.

Yet the abuses continue on a fairly regular basis. The latest major unpleasantness was an incident in which a male fire fighter who had been harassing a female fire fighter provoked a scuffle with her in which she was cut by a knife. He was found guilty by a hearing officer of sexual harassment and being intoxicated on duty. The recommendation was for dismissal, but the Fire Commissioner, Joseph Spinnato, who has yet to act, can soften the suggested penalty.

The female fire fighter has since received a death threat over the phone. Her travails have drawn notice in the press; most of the abuses against the women, equally insidious though less dramatic, go unremarked.

At bottom, the reason the Fire Department has handled this test of its character so badly is that it has suffered, at least on the women’s issue, a failure of leadership. Officers have taken a dive, looked the other way, while the women were being mentally tortured or worse. The commissioner has looked the other way, too. He got around to “sensitivity training” for officers only a couple of months ago — four years late. And even then, it’s but a one-day training session.

All the professional-sounding arguments the men have made about women not having the requisite upper-body strength to be fire fighters sounds cheap and hollow and very unconvincing when, instead of letting the women show whether they can do it or not, they try to defeat them in advance with the silent treatment.

And the union has by and large given the impression to the men that it will stand up for them no matter what they do.

I have, since I was very young, looked upon firemen as community heroes — because, though they spend a lot of time at minor fires, they regularly are called into life-threatening blazes, where they take risks for the rest of us. 

I have not changed my mind about this, but the New York City Fire Department has certainly not behaved honorably about opening its ranks to some of the rest of us — women. 

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