Metro

City review finds pervasive ‘locker room talk’ in Boston firehouses

A ribbon honoring the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings is seen on the side of Mattapan Ladder 29 as the new ladder trucks enter Boston Fire Department service in South Boston, Massachusetts August 19, 2013. (Jessica Rinaldi For The Boston Globe)
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/File

A city-commissioned review to be released Tuesday found pervasive “locker room talk” and an unwelcoming culture toward women in the largely male ranks of the Boston Fire Department and urged city officials to take several steps to boost the number of women on the force.

Just 16 women are in the 1,500-member Fire Department, which has been criticized three separate times for its culture over the past 19 years. The latest review was ordered after several women complained last year of a pattern of harassment and discrimination in the department.

“It cannot be denied that the department remains male-dominated with persistent perceptions of favoritism, resistance to change, and a culture of ‘going along to get along’ ” for women,’’ stated the report, which was led by attorney Kay Hodge, who has defended the city in previous labor matters.

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Mayor Martin J. Walsh committed to carrying out all of the 21 recommendations in the report, including those that would facilitate the hiring of more female firefighters. Most notably, he said, he would seek legislation to create a cadet program that would circumvent civil service restrictions that currently require the department to give job preference to veterans and other groups, thereby narrowing the pool of eligible female candidates.

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“It’s incredibly important that our workplaces in the City of Boston are inclusive and diverse, and are safe and welcoming to all,” the mayor said in a statement. The review “will serve as an opportunity for us to double down on our efforts to recruit those who we have not reached before, make changes where they are needed, and provide every opportunity we can to involve women and men in good, lifelong careers with the Boston Fire Department.”

The cadet program needs state approval, but the Walsh administration could implement other recommendations on its own, such as enforcing existing policies, or implementing new training measures and support programs for women.

The report also described a historic lack of action to address department culture, with past reviews criticizing an “old boy network” that led to discrimination and affected the recruitment and promotion of women on the force.

In an interview, Hodge said she found a male-dominated culture that could foster the discrimination against or harassment of women or prevent the women from filing complaints out of fear they would be retaliated against or stigmatized.

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As firefighters, the women are in close quarters with their male colleagues for 24-hour shifts, and in downtime they sleep nearby, cook, and shop together. Hodge said no one reported any lack of trust among their colleagues in the work of fighting fires.

Hodge said that 13 of the 16 female firefighters on the force cooperated in the investigation. Several, she said, had no complaints of discrimination and said they felt welcomed, though several told her they were at times uncomfortable with their surroundings. Hodge said one common theme among the women was that they felt less welcome when they worked out of a male-dominated firehouse where they were not regularly assigned.

Nine of the city’s 33 firehouses have a female firefighter regularly assigned. Only one female firefighter has achieved the rank of captain.

Hodge said in the report that, “The department must provide a professional working environment at all times in all of its locations regardless of who is present.”

She called on the Walsh administration to develop strategies for “changing the culture and implementing a welcoming and respectful work environment in all firehouses.” That effort should be directed and overseen by fire Commissioner Joseph Finn, she said.

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Hodge said the commissioner has worked to address individual concerns of harassment within the department but that he could do more to hold supervisors accountable.

“The commissioner needs to lead the change to further a more professional and respectful environment by enforcing the rules regarding discrimination, harassment, and retaliation and holding all officers accountable and responsible for the environment or culture allowed under their supervision,” the report said.

She also called for clarification of the department’s existing policies to ensure that the human resources office oversees and enforces discrimination and harassment claims, as well as training and recruitment and promotion processes. Currently, the department puts some of those duties under the chief of personnel, making it unclear who would be responsible for enforcing the policies.

Finn said in a statement that, “This report makes clear that we have more work to do, and now more than ever I am committed to driving this needed change of embracing a culture of inclusion that will reach every corner of every firehouse.”

Another recommendation would require the department to assign firefighters in romantic relationships to different firehouses, so that they do not work together. A recent complaint before the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, which in part spurred Hodge’s review, involved firefighters who had been in a previous romantic relationship.

The review comes eight months after a Boston Globe report that described a pattern of harassment, discrimination, and sexism on the force. Female firefighters told the Globe they had been reluctant to report problems to supervisors because they did not feel they would be believed or they feared retaliation or being stigmatized.

The MCAD is investigating at least two related cases, including one in which firefighters placed bets over whether a woman firefighter and a male lieutenant were sexually involved. The bets were made after a male fire official allegedly used a department-issued smartphone app to locate the lieutenant at the female firefighter’s house.

That same female firefighter had also allegedly been assaulted by a male co-worker at the Jamaica Plain firehouse where they worked.

Hodge told the Globe that she did not investigate the merits of those cases. She found that leadership at the Fire Department responded appropriately to the complaints in each of those cases.

Andrea Campbell, president of the Boston City Council, who has held hearings to scrutinize the culture of gender and race relations within the Fire Department, said in a statement that “this report confirms that we have much work to do to both diversify public safety departments and create a more inclusive culture.”

“We have waited too long to take meaningful steps to increase diversity in these departments,” she said, pointing out that she has previously pushed for a cadet program.

“No matter how many women and people of color are hired and promoted within our public safety departments, these strides mean little if these individuals do not feel welcomed, valued, or safe on the job, and that largely depends on the culture within a department.”

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at milton.valencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.