When the Public Broadcasting Service’s NewsHour aired an investigation titled “Rape, Harassment and Retaliation in the U.S. Forest Service” in March, reactions inside the agency ran the gamut. Many managers said they were uncertain about the future of the agency. Others felt they could no longer do their jobs because they feared accusations of harassment. Targets of harassment — both women and men — celebrated. For his part, Forest Service Chief Tony Tooke resigned days later, after acknowledging that he was also being investigated for sexual misconduct.
For women like myself, a Forest Service employee and firefighter going on 14 seasons, the exposé told me nothing new: Female firefighters have been raped, assaulted and harassed in great numbers for many years, and for the most part, the perpetrators face little or no consequences. It is the victims who are most often retaliated against. After reporting an offense, they are advised to keep the incident(s) quiet, and subsequently are often pushed out of fire crews and even out of the agency altogether.
What the PBS investigation did was shine a light on firefighting culture. Victims, perpetrators, enablers, first-year rookies, middle managers, forest supervisors, regional and national employees — all have found ourselves exposed to the nation, mostly in a compromised and ugly position.
“It is such a hostile environment,” said journalist Judy Woodruff, discussing the PBS investigation. “Why do these women go into the Forest Service in the first place?”
I am one of these women, and here is my answer: The culture of firefighting is not an inherently “hostile environment.” For every coworker that has excluded me from the “boys’ club,” 10 others have made me feel welcome and safe in a professional work environment. I have faith in these good people to change a culture that has historically enabled sexual assault and retaliation. If we do not act as harbingers of change, we are by default complicit in the problem.
The victims interviewed for the PBS investigation are just a fraction of those who remain fearfully silent or have moved on from the agency. I have little doubt of their credibility. I have never been assaulted, fortunately, but I have experienced and also witnessed harassment and discrimination. In my view, it stems from the perspective that women are, and should remain, outsiders in the industry.
I was told three years ago during a friendly conversation with a male coworker that I was only hired because I was female. It wasn’t true, but it illustrated what I fear most about this transition in our field: Women are often seen as intruders, as tokens who were only hired to meet some kind of quota. We are treated as pariahs in our professional fields, regarded as little more than sexual-harassment cases waiting to happen.
This sentiment — that working with women is playing with fire — has been hinted at by many of my colleagues throughout the years. Male firefighters at all levels feel hamstrung, suddenly censored, in what is a naturally high-risk, adrenaline-filled career that at times warrants aggressive command presence. In expressing their concerns, however, some male firefighters imply that simply maintaining an appropriate workplace environment is so difficult and out of the ordinary that it cannot possibly be done. And so, they say, they fear for their jobs.
It’s true that certain aspects of this job inherently challenge political correctness. We work in the woods, sleep on the ground, relate to each other through bathroom humor, teasing and goading. Spending an entire summer, day and night, with the same people means that professionalism inevitably slips into casual camaraderie. This is how we cope, how we bond and thrive. This gray area, where our professional lives become personal, is both rewarding and dangerous — prime territory for interpersonal chaos. But firefighter culture has to try to enter the 21st century; it can no longer hide fearfully behind patriarchal tradition. Times have changed, and fire culture needs to catch up.
Fortunately, change is happening, albeit slowly. For every supervisor like the one who hazed me 17 years ago, dozens since have shown respect and professionalism. The pressure is now on these good supervisors to act as pathfinders who will guide us into a new era, rather than behave like rabbits frozen in a spotlight. This is especially true for fire management officers, captains, superintendents and other program managers who are the creators of crew culture. They must use their influence to make it clear that women are welcome in the agency and that there is no room for sexual harassment, assault or discrimination.
That said, it is the responsibility of all firefighters to stop enabling problems by ignoring them. If we lead with this ethic in mind, others will follow. It may be hard to do the right thing — to protect those in need and drive out firefighters not worthy of the title — but aren’t we strong enough to handle it?
Lorena Williams is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is a writer and wildland firefighter based out of Durango.