Boston has just 16 female firefighters. Several say discrimination is rampant
After she got out of the Army in 2004, Nathalie Delsoin wanted to follow in her godfather's footsteps and join the Boston Fire Department. She passed the civil service test and the arduous physical examination, proving that, just like the men, she could cut it as a firefighter.
But when she started, she said, she felt tormented — not because her skills were lacking, but because she was the only woman in her Charlestown firehouse.
An officer asked her to fold his laundry. Her colleagues took her toiletries from the bathroom. Another firefighter referenced the size of her breasts.
That same male firefighter, Delsoin said, jumped into bed with her on a June night in 2009 and tried to have sex with her. When she got free, she locked herself in the bathroom, where she spent the night. Stunned and wary of being ostracized, Delsoin took about two weeks to report the incident, and when she did, she said, few believed her. The firefighter was not disciplined, and she asked for a transfer to a different firehouse.
Now the issues she raised nearly a decade ago are coming back to light after a Boston firefighter said a male co-worker assaulted her in a Jamaica Plain firehouse in January. He pleaded not guilty last month. The alleged assault was a chilling reminder for some of Boston's female firefighters.
"I said, 'Here we go again,' " said Delsoin recently. "People are going to humiliate her and tell her to shut up. They are going to blame her. This is all coming to my head because it happened to me."
There are just 16 female firefighters in the department's force of 1,500. Of the 16 women, four are white, 10 are black, and two are Hispanic. Only one is a commanding officer. As firefighters, they live, sleep, and work alongside their colleagues on 24-hour shifts and in close quarters. They make runs to people in distress, put out blazes, and serve on specialized teams that handle hazardous materials. Often, they find themselves the only woman on a shift.
In interviews with three female firefighters, a former liaison for the women on the force, and two female retirees from the department, the women described a pattern of harassment, discrimination, and sexism in the Fire Department. They say they have experienced unnecessary touching, disparaging comments, and isolation, but said they don't often speak up because they don't feel believed by the administration and fear being treated as though they did something wrong — or just can't handle the job.
"You are guilty, unless you can prove your innocence,'' said Karen Miller, a retired firefighter and one of the women who filed complaints against the department in the 1990s — eventually forcing the department to get rid of communal bathrooms in the firehouses, provide a female psychologist for the women, and erect privacy screens in the firehouse bedrooms. "Women are still referred to in unpleasant terms, incidents continue to happen, and they are not always handled well."
In an interview, Fire Commissioner Joseph E. Finn said he takes the safety and dignity of all firefighters very seriously, no matter in the field or the firehouse, and that the women have his full support.
"We won't tolerate any type of behavior that is detrimental to the cohesiveness of the firehouse, especially any discrimination, whether it is sexual, sexual orientation, or race, creed, whatever,'' said Finn. "If you check my record you will know that I don't tolerate any type of intimidation or any type of discrimination in the workforce."
The commissioner said the department has provided training on preventing conflict and confrontation, harassment, and discrimination, including implicit bias.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh, in that same interview, said any firefighter who feels intimidated or bullied should report it to the department.
"We can't tolerate that," he said. "We have to step up as a city and as a society to push back on that."
Firefighter Chantette Stallworth said she has heard the concerns of her female colleagues. But, she said, her own experience has been quite otherwise. She said that at her Dorchester firehouse, her male co-workers treat her "like a sister."
"I've got a good group of guys that I work with,'' she said. "The men are already on eggshells. . . . They don't want to say the wrong thing to the women."
But other women interviewed by the Globe described inappropriate behavior by some of their male colleagues. One woman said she suspected secret videos of her were being circulated at two firehouses, and another said a male firefighter used a department-issued smartphone app to track her whereabouts. Both women filed official complaints. The department said it investigated the video claim and determined it to be unfounded. A suspension was issued for the smartphone incident.
The women said that after what allegedly happened to their colleague in January, they decided to break their silence and publicly speak out in hopes City Hall would intervene.
Over the past year, several of the female firefighters have been confiding in Julia Rodriguez, a 29-year veteran firefighter named by former commissioner Roderick J. Fraser Jr. in 2012 to be the department's official liaison for women on the force. In December, she sought a meeting with Fire Department deputy commissioner of labor relations Connie Wong and human resources director Andrea Hennelly, so, she said, they could hear directly from the female firefighters about their concerns over safety, fair treatment, and the lack of female-only bathrooms with privacy locks.
"There was a lot of pain'' at the meeting, recalled Yvette Ram, now in her 20th year as a Boston firefighter. "And you felt the women were feeling very isolated."
The women also set up an instant messaging system on WhatsApp so they could communicate quickly and confidentially in support of one another.
Two weeks after the meeting, the alleged assault at the Jamaica Plain station occurred. The same firefighter who had complained to officials about the location tracking app alleged that an on-duty male firefighter had exposed himself, grabbed her by the head, and pushed her face toward his crotch.
Reports on the alleged assault led some of the women to demand a meeting with Finn. After talking with the women, Finn said, he advised them to meet with Wong and Hennelly one-on-one to speak about their concerns. Two of the women also met individually with the commissioner, the officials said.
The department said 13 female firefighters attended individual meetings with Wong and Hennelly, and only three explicitly indicated that they had a safety concern. The female firefighters interviewed by the Globe dispute that figure.
Rodriguez, the liaison until recently, said the women did not want their issues buried.
One of those women was Ram, who said she was beginning to feel at the time that she should no longer stay silent. She's had her own troubles on the force.
Ram said she had been in a long-term relationship with another Boston firefighter, who worked with her in the same firehouse in Dorchester. But after 14 years together, they broke up in 2016 — after which Ram said she was told that her former partner had shown videos of her on his smartphone to other firefighters.
She said that each time she complained to fire officials, expressing her worry that videos were taken without her consent and may include nude images of her, they were dismissive, telling her that it was a personal matter and that she should file a report with her local police. She also expressed her fears that there might be cameras in the firehouse bathroom or bedroom.
When she filed her initial complaints, she said, the personnel chief refused to accept it.
"These incidents and the fact that the department has done nothing about it have left me feeling unsafe and vulnerable,'' Ram wrote in a third complaint this year.
Department officials said they investigated Ram's complaint about the cellphone videos three times — in 2016, 2017, and 2018, and they determined there was never any video shown, let alone a nude video. Ram said the investigations were cursory.
After the January incident, Ram said, she filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. The complaint remains under investigation. Fire officials said they spoke with several people and a witness, who officials said "disagreed with the complainant's allegation, and emphatically stated that the complainant's version of the allegation did not happen."
Rodriguez, the veteran female firefighter, said she believes Ram's allegations and those of all the women speaking out about their life inside the department. She has had her own hard experiences, having been part of two successful harassment lawsuits against the Fire Department in the 1990s, when she sued to get her job back after she had been fired. At the time, her supervisors said a woman could not cut it as a firefighter.
She was also part of a joint suit against the department in 1994 along with Miller, the retired firefighter, and the department's two other women at the time. They complained that the men stole their equipment, verbally abused them, and urinated in one woman's bed. The male supervisors did nothing to stop the abuse, they alleged.
At the time, the department was ordered to institute a series of changes, including anti-harassment training and bathrooms that only women can use when they are on shift.
As the female liaison, Rodriguez's main task was to bring the women's concerns to department administrators. But in February, not long after the female firefighters met with Finn, the commissioner removed her from the post.
"He told me that all I was doing was bringing problems to him,'' Rodriguez said.
Fire officials said the new liaison will be "more involved in all facets of women in the fire service issues." In an e-mail obtained by the Globe, the new liaison said that Finn stressed that while addressing the women's concerns is critical, "he would also like to hear about the good things we achieve as a strong and fearless group of the BFD."
Fire Captain Darrell Higginbottom, president of the Boston Society of Vulcans, which advocates for diversity in the city's firefighting force, said that the organization supports the women who are members of the Vulcans.
"The City of Boston needs to do more to support them and resolve these serious matters so these women feel safe and they are able to perform their duties without recourse," he said.
The woman in the Jamaica Plain alleged assault case in January is waiting. She had said that last year a colleague had used the department-issued smartphone application, Purvis, to locate a fire lieutenant who was at her home.
The male firefighter took a screenshot of the location, sent it to multiple colleagues, and placed a wager about whether the woman and the lieutenant were sexually involved, sparking rumors, the MCAD complaint said.
The woman's complaint said she reported the incident in September to a fire captain.
"I informed him that these rumors made me feel both violated and embarrassed,'' the complaint said. "I also asked that he keep my complaint discreet and confidential, so I would not have to endure more harassment."
The city, in its MCAD response, said while the man violated department rules, the woman's allegations "do not constitute sexual harassment or discrimination based on gender," according to the document, which was obtained by the Globe.
Fire officials said the male firefighter "admitted to finding out the location of the female firefighter and was disciplined for his actions.'' He was suspended for two 12-hour tours, reprimanded, and ordered to attend training.
"As a further step,'' officials said, "the department conducted respectful workplace and anti-harassment training at each of the impacted firehouses with all members and with each group."
The woman thought the penalty wholly insufficient. She was placed on administrative leave to deal with the stress — a response by the department that her lawyer called unfair.
"I don't think an employer should treat anybody who brings a complaint of sexual harassment in the workplace this way,'' said the lawyer, Megan Deluhery.
The man was subsequently transferred to another firehouse.
On Jan. 14, while off duty, that same female firefighter entered the Jamaica Plain firehouse at 746 Centre St. to retrieve some of her belongings.
She told police she was confronted in a room by firefighter David Sanchez, a 37-year-old Hyde Park resident who has been a Boston firefighter since 2006.
The Globe generally does not name victims or alleged victims in cases of alleged sexual assault.
"He blocked the doorway and made attempts to kiss her," said a police report of the incident. As she refused his advances, he shoved her onto a couch, allegedly grabbed her by the head, and pushed her into his crotch.
She said she was able to free herself and left.
Afterward, she typed out a message on Whatsapp to her female colleagues.
"Something terrible has happened,'' said Ram, who read the message soon after it was sent.
Ram called Rodriguez, who also saw the message and said she contacted the woman's firehouse and spoke to Deputy Chief Michael Doherty, who called police. They met the officer at the woman's house, along with other fire officials.
On April 18, Sanchez appeared in West Roxbury Municipal Court to face formal charges: Indecent assault and battery on a person 14 or over and assault and battery.
"He said he is not guilty from day one,'' Sanchez's lawyer, John Diaz, told the Globe at the time.
A pretrial hearing is set for June 13.
The woman's lawyer, Deluhery, said her client is having a hard time dealing with the Fire Department's handling of both her cases.
"The Fire Department needs some serious reflection and change,'' Deluhery said. "I remain hopeful it will engage in real self-reflection and make changes."
Clarification: In 1996, the Boston Fire Department signed a consent decree in which it promised to improve conditions for female firefighters. The order -- called the Hansford Decree -- followed a complaint filed by firefighter Judy Hansford. Several other female firefighters, including Karen Miller, filed complaints against the fire department over conditions for women in the same era. An earlier version of this story mistakenly attributed the changes specifically to Miller's suit.