Sexual Harassment: Department & Firefighter Responsibilities

It has been three years since the U.S. Supreme Court rendered two significant decisions refining the law of sexual harassment. Those decisions require every employer, including fire departments, to provide a work environment that is not hostile because of...


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Any firefighter who believes that he or she has been sexually harassed has a responsibility to promptly report the harassment. A department can defend itself against liability and damages by showing that the purported victim did not notify the department so that it could have the opportunity to respond. Complaint procedures should encourage victims to come forward without fear of reprisal.

Employees must be able to make their complaints outside the chain of command. If that option is not available, it would be impossible to obtain protection from a harassing officer (or other supervisor). This raises special issues in the fire service, with its quasi-military, highly structured chain of command. Department leaders need to give special thought to ways to enable complaints of harassment without undermining the critical importance of maintaining the operational chain of command.

If the department has an effective program, firefighters will feel the freedom to express their complaints, and a prompt complaint will end the harassment. Department officials will quickly respond to determine the facts, and then act promptly to address any problem that is found. It is best to resolve these complaints as quickly as possible, and at the lowest possible level. They should be handled informally, if possible. There must also be a more formal process available to address complaints in the event that one of the involved parties is not satisfied with the results of an informal dispute resolution process.

Undoubtedly, sexual harassment still occurs in fire stations. However, representatives of several fire service organizations have said that the problem is not as blatant as in the past. While sexual harassment problems may be less evident today, the fire service must recognize that the potential for an explosive situation is always present. Like firefighter safety, it must always be a priority for department leaders, no matter how good the past record has been.

Sexual harassment never will be completely addressed by neat, objective legal rules. It is too much rooted in the complexities of human relationships. This is an area of the law in which liability is best avoided by strong leadership, rather than by legal rules alone.


Steve Blackistone, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is an attorney and a member of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad in Montgomery County, MD.