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Firehouse culture an ordeal for women

Times Staff Writer

Melissa Kelley thought she knew what she was getting into when she joined the Los Angeles Fire Department five years ago. Her grandfather had been a firefighter. She held a degree in fire science. She’d spent five years fighting fires with the California Department of Forestry.

She knew the firehouse could be an uncomfortable place for a woman. She’d heard that female recruits were drilled harder, judged more harshly and sometimes harassed and ridiculed.

“But I was willing to overlook all that,” Kelley said. “The dirty jokes, the porn, the frat boy stupidity. I didn’t care if I had my own bathroom. I just wanted to be part of the team.

“I wanted to be a firefighter so bad, I was willing to put up with almost anything.”

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Almost anything. She had two rules: “Do not touch me. Do not hurt me on purpose.”

The first rule was broken when she was a rookie, on the night she was roused from sleep at the station when a firefighter climbed into her bed.

“He tried to kiss me,” Kelley recalled. “I was so shocked, it took me a second to figure out what was happening. I didn’t want to [anger him], so I kept saying ‘Not right now, not right now.’ ”

He slid his hands under her clothes, promising “no one would know.” When she resisted, he left and returned to his bed.

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The next morning, he made no mention of the incident, Kelley said. But he taunted her for weeks, clucking like a chicken when she was around.

Kelley, 32, said nothing -- to him or anyone else. “I thought, ‘Who am I going to tell?’ I didn’t want people to think I was a complainer. People already assume you’re just on the job to find a husband.

“My only recourse was to pretend like it never happened.”

A way to survive

For female firefighters in Los Angeles, whose stories are recorded in documents and interviews, pretending can be a survival tool.

Pretending you don’t mind being addressed as “Hey, girl"; that the crude stories of prostitutes’ sexual exploits don’t bother you; that you find it amusing when someone in the fire station fills your mouthwash bottle with urine or defecates in your shower stall.

In recent weeks, the Los Angeles Fire Department has been the focus of renewed debate over whether it is a hotbed of racial discrimination. A harassment lawsuit by black firefighter Tennie Pierce -- who was tricked into eating dog food by station mates -- resulted earlier this month in a $2.7-million settlement. The payout was vetoed by the mayor and rescinded amid a public uproar over whether the deed was an innocent prank gone wrong or a reflection of racial animosity.

That debate became the catalyst for Fire Chief William Bamattre’s resignation Friday and spotlighted long-standing allegations of hostility toward blacks in the department.

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Now some female firefighters are stepping out of the shadows.

Women are a tiny fraction of the department, numbering 95 out of its 3,625 firefighters. They are newcomers -- the first female firefighter was hired in 1985 -- to a field steeped in tradition and long considered the domain of men.

Many of the stories they tell never make it into official reports. Some women say they have been afraid to share incidents, even with one another. Most are loath to complain because in the firehouse, reputation is everything.

“You want to have a solid, iron-clad reputation: You’re a hard worker, a team player,” said Capt. Alicia Mathis, a 17-year veteran and one of 19 female captains.

But women are beginning to break that silence; the “go along to get along” ethos has begun to crack.

In September, firefighter Ruthie Bernal was paid $320,000 by the city to settle a sexual harassment and battery lawsuit, in which she alleged that her captain made continual sexual requests, tried to kiss her and treated her harshly when she rejected him.

A lawsuit filed by firefighter Brenda Lee, alleging that she was harassed and discriminated against as a woman and a lesbian, is slated for trial next spring.

And Mathis, 40, has laid the groundwork for a class-action lawsuit on behalf of women by filing a complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, alleging gender discrimination, a hostile work environment, harassment and retaliation.

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“Almost every female firefighter on the LAFD has suffered unwanted touching, leering or derogatory comments,” her complaint contends. “A dildo was put in a women’s locker, a female firefighter was told to sleep in a closet, and women have often been referred to as ‘bitches.’ ”

Earlier this year, an audit of the department by City Controller Laura Chick found widespread perceptions of discrimination. More than 80% of female firefighters surveyed said they were personally aware of or had experienced sexual harassment.

Chick’s findings suggest little has changed since a 1994 audit found that 40% of female recruits failed to graduate from academy training -- twice the rate for men -- and those who did were often targeted for harassment.

Back then, public outrage was triggered by a controversial videotape mocking female firefighters. Dubbed “Female Follies,” the tape -- filmed by male training officers and circulated among fire stations -- portrayed female recruits struggling with physical tasks, interspersed with snippets of footage showing men handling those jobs with ease.

Fire Department managers defended it as a “bloopers-like tape” intended to be humorous. City officials blasted it as humiliating evidence of institutional sexism intended to ridicule and discourage women.

Part of the culture

Hazing and pranks have long been a part of firehouse culture. Chick’s audit found that almost two-thirds of firefighters had participated in or witnessed hazing, ranging from stuffing cake into a captain’s work boots to dumping a bucket of cold water on an unsuspecting rookie to shaving the genital area of a firefighter about to be married.

Some female firefighters say they appreciate the role that lighthearted pranks play in building camaraderie. But what happens to them has a harder edge, they say, and is occasionally physically threatening.

“This is not ‘boys will be boys’ stuff,” said Genie Harrison, the lawyer representing Mathis, Pierce and three other firefighters -- one female, two male -- who recently won settlements on harassment claims.

“You get into bed with a woman and start to physically assault her, that’s not a prank -- that’s an attempted rape.”

Like Kelley, Mathis remembers being accosted in bed as a rookie in the middle of the night. She blocked it from her mind, she said, “until I saw the guy 10 years later, when I was a captain, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I never said anything.’

“You think, ‘That was just me. I got out of it and made my way and I was fine.’ Now I wonder what happened from that time on.”

Experts say women integrating into all-male professions often feel confused about how to handle harassment.

“Some women go along with it, trying to out-muscle the guys with tough talk,” said Princeton psychology professor Susan Fiske. “Others are intimidated by it, collapse and quit.

“But the most common reaction to sexual harassment is not to tell anybody at work.”

‘Locker-room stuff’

In the firehouse, the conflict between men and women is exacerbated by circumstance, culture and history.

Firefighters’ 24-hour on-duty stints require them to live together, and most women are the only females in their crews. Every firehouse now has separate locker rooms and bathrooms for women -- a requirement Bamattre mandated during his tenure. Some stations offer separate sleeping areas; in others, women share the dorm with men.

Resentment sometimes flows from those accommodations. Allowing women in the inner sanctum means ceding bathroom space, toning down rough language, hiding racy magazines. Some male firefighters admit they relish “female-free” days, when no women are around.

“It means they can do locker-room stuff,” like bragging about sexual exploits and peering down from the firetruck at attractive women in passing cars, said one male fire captain, who did not want to be identified because he fears being ostracized.

Some resistance to women is rooted in concerns about the physically demanding nature of the job. Firefighters have to lift 200-pound ladders, pull heavy lengths of hose and climb stairs wielding giant power tools. One in three female recruits washes out of the department’s grueling 17-week training program, compared with one in 10 male candidates.

But many female -- and some male -- firefighters contend women are ridden harder than men.

“There are still quite a few firefighters who don’t believe women belong,” said Fire Commissioner Genethia Hudley-Hayes. “Firefighters are manly. Women are suspect. ‘Why would she want to do this?’ But they don’t ask a guy why he wants to be a firefighter.”

As the focus of the fire service changes -- only 20% of fire calls today involve structural or brush fires, and 80% are medical emergencies -- factors other than physical prowess become important.

“Sometimes issues [in the community] escalate and you face a confrontation-type thing,” said Fire Capt. Christopher Cooper. “My female firefighters will step in, and I go, ‘Whew.’ They have a soothing way of de-escalating a situation. With them, it’s not an ego thing.”

He doesn’t believe most male firefighters aim to intimidate or isolate women. But he agrees that women are sometimes evaluated by standards that have less to do with safety than with tradition.

“I’ve seen it [when I ride] with countless women. They see a pothole, they won’t swerve. They’ll run right over it and won’t think anything of it. Ninety-nine percent of men I ride with will try to avoid it; they’ll swerve, steer the truck around it.

“There are supervisors who will say [to the women], ‘I want you to run around those potholes,’ ” Cooper continued. “ ‘If you don’t, I’m going to evaluate you as a substandard driver.’ That’s how the whole process starts -- the hostile work environment.

“One of the biggest problems when you’re working with women: Guys try to make them into men.”

A sobering drill

Outside of Fire Station 27 in Hollywood stands a statue commemorating the sacrifices of Los Angeles firefighters. There, Melissa Kelley, immortalized in bronze and holding a fire hose, stands among four male firefighters.

But the petite, ponytailed blond may never “man” a fire line again.

Two years ago, on a routine training drill known as the “Humiliator,” Kelley was assigned to hoist a 180-pound ladder, climb it while clutching a giant rotating saw and then cut through a window’s metal bars. She was exhausted -- having just returned from a fire run -- but confident. She had done a similar drill the day before.

But when she tried to swing the ladder around, she dropped it, “180 pounds, on top of my head,” she recalled. She tried to lift it, but her helmet was wedged between its rungs. Her shoulder was throbbing, and she could not lift her arm.

“In my head I’m thinking, ‘I’m dying. My arm is messed up. My back is hurting. My legs are going to give out if I don’t get this ladder off me.’

“From the moment I realized I was stuck I thought, ‘OK, I’m part of a team. They’re going to help me, right?’ ” But when one firefighter moved toward her to help, the station captain ordered him back.

“Everybody was just standing there screaming and cussing at me,” Kelley recalled. “No one came to my aid. At all.”

She managed to throw the ladder off and finish the drill, she said, her injured arm pinned to her chest.

Later, a female officer took her to the hospital. She had torn a rotator cuff, damaged four discs in her back and three in her neck. She would need surgery and months of rehabilitation. Kelley, now working as a dispatcher, may never return to fighting fires.

At the time, Chief Bamattre blasted the captain’s conduct and suspended him for two days without pay. But the captain appealed, and a Board of Rights panel of department officers reduced his penalty to a written reprimand.

“That’s less than you get for losing a radio,” Kelley said bitterly. But that’s not what hurts her the most. It’s the humiliation she felt standing there, struggling and failing, obviously in pain, surrounded by men she considered brothers, with no one offering her a hand.

“We help bums, we help blacks, whites, old people, strangers. It doesn’t matter what their social status is,” she said, her eyes watering at the memory.

“Those were my teammates They would help a dog pinned under a ladder. But they wouldn’t help me.”

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

95

Women in the 3,625- member Fire Department

80%

The percentage of female firefighters who said they were aware of or had experienced sexual harassment

Source: Los Angeles Times


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