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Sexually Explicit Material in Firehouses: Trying to Douse a Blazing Issue

February 14, 1988|JOHN KENDALL | Times Staff Writer

It was a terrible scene.

Two Los Angeles Fire Department paramedics had answered a call one spring evening last year to open wetlands near Los Angeles International Airport where the ant-bitten, partially clad body of a young woman had been discovered. She had been murdered. And they suspected she had been raped.

"It was really sad and gruesome," said a woman paramedic, who asked not to be named. "My partner and I drove around afterward. He has a teen-age daughter, and I have a sister in her early 20s. We both were upset."

Back at the station, she went into the recreation room.

"They were watching pornography," she said. "All I remember is going in there, realizing that pornography was on and walking out. It was a simulated rape scene. I had just seen a young girl who had been killed, and they were in there making comments.

"I didn't sleep the entire night."

In her years as a paramedic working out of about 30 firehouses, she said, she could not remember a single station without sexually explicit material: videos, magazines or cable programs. And some firemen do not seem to mind who is present when they watch, she said.

"They see you coming in, and they just continue watching," she said. "If they're not going to stop when I'm in the room, what's going to stop them?"

The question of what to do about sexually explicit material in station houses has challenged fire officials throughout the country for several years, particularly since the integration of women as firefighters and paramedics.

The issue was raised anew in Los Angeles early last year when a women paramedic complained that firemen at a Westchester firehouse had been watching sexually explicit material on the station's TV. When investigators looked into the allegation, they turned up reports that a veteran fireman had sexually harassed a probationary woman firefighter at the station.

The fireman was subsequently charged with misconduct and, after a lengthy Board of Rights hearing, was suspended for five months. Among the charges on which he was found guilty was an allegation that he had once tried to tug the woman firefighter into the TV room to watch the Playboy Channel.

In the aftermath of the highly publicized hearing, Los Angeles Fire Chief Donald O. Manning presented to the Fire Commission a draft directive, reiterating the Fire Department's policy against sexually explicit material. The city attorney's office is reviewing the draft regulation.

Harold J. Kwalwasser, president of the Los Angeles Fire Commission, declared in a discussion of the issue that there is no place in the city's firehouses for sexually explicit material because they are public workplaces supported by taxpayers.

But Manning, Kwalwasser or anyone else could not say how often some members of the city's 3,000-member firefighting force may have watched sexually explicit films or videos or thumbed magazines featuring female nudity while on duty.

And efforts to talk about the problem with firefighters at several stations were rebuffed.

"We are not allowed to comment," a captain at Fire Station 10 said.

"I'll have to refer you to administrative headquarters," said another fire captain at Station 26. "I can't change department policy. Any comment I would make on it would be out of line."

Ralph Travis, secretary of United Firefighters of Los Angeles City, said he believes that instances of watching pornography in city fire stations are rare.

"I believe 99.9% of firefighters have no interest in viewing that type of material in the engine houses," said Travis, a 26-year veteran. "I spent about 11 years in the field, and I probably saw maybe one or two instances in that time."

At the Los Angeles County Fire Department, Battalion Chief Gordon Pearson said the 2,500-member force, including five women, has had "no complaints."

"I'm not saying that there aren't films in stations," Pearson said. "But if there are, they are being very discreet."

To get some idea of the problem that sexually explicit material poses in the Los Angeles Fire Department, Manning ordered surveys of printed material and television programs available to members of the department.

Television Survey

According to the television survey released Wednesday, 46 of the department's 104 work locations have "the capability of receiving sexually explicit material, either through their cable TV subscription or by use of a dish antenna."

The report made no attempt to explore viewing habits or to determine if city firemen have been watching sexually explicit material on the Playboy Channel or the "Late Night Special" broadcast by Select TV.

As to printed matter, Manning told fire commissioners that a telephone survey disclosed that 16 stations had reported having material fitting the department's definition of sexually explicit. Nearly all of it is locked in cabinets or lockers, he said.

"So we have some work yet to do," the chief said, "but I would be willing to bet right now that since the survey there are less of them (stations) that have it."

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