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Firehouse culture an ordeal for women

In the wake of racial bias allegations in the LAFD, some female firefighters are sharing stories of harassment.

December 03, 2006|Sandy Banks | 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."

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.

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.

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.

"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.

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