Harassment in the Fire Service

by Shelly Spivey

Shelly Spivey
Shelly Spivey

My story, as my old chief used to say, is “the same, but different”. Many female firefighters experience harassment of one kind or another while on the job. Although what I went through is my unique experience, it may seem familiar to others who have tread these same paths. The names have been changed to protect privacy.

I joined the fire service as a volunteer in 1999. I was bored and was looking for some way to do something “great”. My volunteer department was very accepting and through that acceptance I was encouraged to abandon what I went to college for (education) and pursue a career in the fire service full time. It was a dream I’d had since I was a toddler, and I was going to make it come true.

The first department I worked for was a run of the mill combination department here in the South. My very existence upset some because they’d never had a woman fight fire before, and others were intrigued by the “school teacher” turned firefighter. I took a lot of flack from the other paid staff and the chief. When the freezer broke down one weekend in the summer and 25 lbs of “mountain oysters” ruined, I was forced to clean it up with no help from the guys. The chief thought it was pretty funny that I had to clean up 25 lbs of rotten goat testicles out of his personal freezer in the station. I took it in stride. One guy, I’ll call Henry, stayed on my case a lot. We had a fire one afternoon after lunch in a neighboring district and he said he was going to “take my a—to school.” He insisted we make entry, despite the fact that it was just the two of us and our next truck was 45 minutes away. Long story short, when he busted through the floor in that trailer, I had to pull him out. He never said another cross word to me again. I’d proven myself the hard way.

When I got hurt on a call months later, I didn’t report the injury because I was afraid the other guys who still called me “weak” would get worse. “Peter” hated me and made sure at every turn he let me know. When I left that department, Peter talked about what a good, smart firefighter I’d been, yet the entire time I was there it was non-stop hell. I never complained because I didn’t want to make a name for myself. I just gave as good as I got or cried all the way home after my shift.

I wound up, through fate, at an airport department part-time a few years later. I loved it. The guys gave me a hard time sometimes, but we all carried on with each other and I felt accepted. I was transferred to a shift where Captain Other was getting an associate’s degree. He asked for help with his papers. One of the other guys pulled me aside and told me that if I didn’t help him he would make my life miserable. So I helped. My help quickly became me writing papers for all of his online classes. It was no sweat for me, I knew all about English lit, but it was wrong and I was afraid to say anything about it. I just typed out papers for him and hoped his grades kept his legendary wrath at bay.

I went over to dispatch for a while before they had an opening for me to work full time in that ARFF department. I was ecstatic when they assigned me to Captain Johnstone. I’d volunteered with his dad and nephew and knew his whole family. He was a great Captain and I was glad to work with him.

Then Captain Other pushed to have me moved to his shift. To this day I have no idea why. It wasn’t long after the shift swap that my mother fell and was in the hospital with a bone infection for months. It was a difficult time, and that is when Captain Other smelled weakness and went after me. Over the next year, I had furniture thrown at me, I was called the n-word, I was screamed at, I was pushed, I was cursed, I was punished for others’ mistakes, and I was given extra duties if someone else messed up.

One Saturday in April, I thought he was going to kill me. I had walked over to do a daily check on my ARFF truck, and noticed there was a steamer to storx adapter on the ground next to my truck.  We had not pulled any equipment off of my truck, so I was curious as to why this was laying on the ground next to an open compartment. I asked the Captain about it and he pushed me out the doors into the bay area. I scooped up the adapter and showed it to him.  He grabbed the adapter from me and threw it into the truck. He beat on the truck just above my head, he had me backed against the open compartment while he called me names and screamed. I reached behind me and wrapped my hands around the adapter. I figured if he hit me I’d have to clock him with that adapter. When the Lieutenant walked by, he screamed at him too. It was horrible, he even foamed at the mouth a little. This was the first of many incidents like this.

Everyone in the station, the police department, operations and maintenance knew. I never reported it becauseWorkplace Harassment I was afraid. I was so scared this mad man was going to hurt me. I dreaded running calls because he would find something wrong and berate me in front of the shift or blame me for something out of my control. We had a patient die from heart failure one night on a call, and the Captain made it a point to tell me I’d killed him because I was stupid and lazy. The coroner had told us this guy was a ticking time bomb, so we knew it wasn’t something we or the medics did. But the Captain stayed on that line for weeks. Sometimes he was so bad I’d sneak off to a hiding place I had in the storage room and cry. I lived in hell. At one point, it was so bad my brother-in-law’s entire shift at a neighboring department had heard about it. They asked my blessing to come up after work and “straighten out” the Captain. They didn’t like him anyway, and this was a reason for an entire shift to make it right. I explained that because we were on airport property they’d get in federal trouble and I asked that they not beat some sense into him. So 13 angry firefighters stood down. Thirteen men were so furious about the treatment of one of their sisters in arms, they were ready to go to jail for assault. I never forgot that gesture, even if it was the worlds worst idea.

The final straw came one day when the Chief asked me to do something and the Captain blew up about it. When I apologized that night for upsetting him in an effort to smooth things over, he flew into a rage. Though I was very afraid, I stood my ground and said, “I think you are speaking very disrespectfully to me. I came in to apologize, you don’t have to scream at me.” He grabbed a chair in the kitchen and threw it at my head. He boomed, “I don’t give an F what you think! You lazy N! You have no business listening to the Chief, you do what I say! What I tell you and nothing else, you got it?” I looked him in the eyes and said, “I will come back to discuss this when you are calm”. I turned on my heel and went out to do my evening truck duties. I was shaking like a leaf.

Later that night he called me into the office and explained that he couldn’t stand me, that I got under his skin and he hated me. He said I wasn’t the firefighter I used to be and I was a worthless N-word. When I told him I was going to request a shift swap because he couldn’t control his temper, he got really quiet. He said he’d “treat me more human” and there was no need for me to be moved off that shift. What no one knew was that I had made an anonymous tip that night to the HR line about the abuse. I had finally gotten the guts to call it in.

Things were heated after that. They wrote him up and sent him to anger management. I was left on his shift to “punish him”. Witnesses were called in, and people talked about what they’d seen and heard. But they had to be asked. After that, he’d just walk up to me and whisper things like “That masters degree you are working on is worthless. You are never going to get a job, and you are useless. Have a great day”. Then he’d just walk off. What I didn’t know until later was he was also abusing the lieutenant.

Spivey ARFF

Once a police officer came into the department and saw Captain Other screaming at me about something or another. He pulled me aside later that night and asked if I wanted to press charges. He said what was going on was criminal and if he saw it again it wouldn’t be up to me. He reported it anyway, and was reprimanded for it. The police chief said it was none of his business and he was barred from the fire department after that. They knew the abuse was going on, and went on in some form or fashion after the anger management, but no one did a thing. I kept my mouth shut and tried to stay sane while I worked. I didn’t want trouble, I just wanted to be a firefighter.

After I got married, the ugly whispers ended too. I was moved off Captain Other’s shift and to Captain Ghandi’s. Ghandi was a kind and understanding man who ended up with the “rejects and damaged goods” that came off other shifts. So he had me, a nutter we called “Pup” and Lieutenant Harrison. All three of us were shell shocked or damaged in some way. I was on that shift until I got sick and was put out on disability.

Captain Ghandi talked to me regularly about how if I ever made a big deal out of what had happened on Captain Other’s shift they’d find a way to fire me. Captain Johnstone would pull me aside and tell me how sorry he was that everything had happened, and he was so furious at the chief for not doing anything sooner. Many of my fellow firefighters saw what happened and knew of the abuse. They’d seen me pushed, they’d seen me screamed at, they’d seen me doing extra duties because the Captain saw fit to load me up. They never reported it and I never complained. That was my mistake. The chief was very upset when things had finally come to a head that I had not called him at home or reported it sooner. I told him I didn’t want trouble, that I was afraid. The irony was, by that time, he already knew but chose to do nothing.

I regret not reporting what happened. I regret telling my preacher and my father not to report it. I regret not letting my family doctor report it too. Everyone wanted to put a stop to something I was too afraid to do myself.

If you are being subjected to abuse or harassment, you DO NOT DESERVE it! You deserve to have a peaceful job, and you deserve to have a working environment where you don’t fear your co-workers. Even if it means losing that job you love so dearly, you don’t deserve the mental anguish that will follow you into everything you do. It is a distraction and distractions can get you killed on this job. I did a lot of things that were stupid to keep from having that Captain have anything else bad to say to me. It sounds stupid, but I was more afraid of him than I was of being hurt on a call. No one should ever go though what I did. If you see it, report it. If it happens to you, report it. Don’t hide the abuser or make excuses for him or her, you deserve better. Your health and well-being are worth more than your job. Trust me on this one, I’m four years out and still fighting this battle.

About the Author: Shelly Spivey joined the fire department in 1999 as a volunteer. She served eleven years in the fire service before being disabled with Meinere’s Disease. During that time she was ARFF, FFII, Fire Instructor, Haz-Mat ops, NREMT-B, Confined Space, Public Education, and more. Shelly has a Bachelor of Arts degree in History and Elementary Education, and a Master’s degree in Special Education. She currently works as a city clerk in an adorable small town near the mountains. She and her husband have two cats, play dungeons and dragons, and watch entirely too much British television. Shelly struggles with PTSD from her years as a firefighter, and fights the balance issues and hearing loss caused by Meniere’s Spivey starevery day. She hopes that her experiences can help someone else survive theirs.

“My favorite Christmas as a kid.  I was 3 or 4 and my aunt got me a helmet with a light and siren and Santa got me a pedal fire truck.  I had an old fireman clip style rain coat and a pair of boots I wore around too.  Mom used to burn yard debris and when she’d go in to get some water, I’d ride up, siren blaring, and grab her water hose and put it out!  haha, I’d get a spanking, but would do it again as soon as she lit off the debris”. – Shelly Spivey