Delaware Firefighter Files Sexual Harassment Suit

WILMINGTON, Del.-- A five-year female veteran of the Wilmington Fire Department claims in a federal lawsuit that she has suffered sexual harassment and retaliation from her co-workers and superiors.

In her 16-page complaint, Elizabeth Huovinen describes a fraternitylike atmosphere in the male-dominated professional department with firefighters exposing themselves to her, watching pornography while on the job, denying her training and promotion opportunities, and generally belittling her because of her gender.

Huovinen, who joined the department as Elizabeth Taylor in 2002 and is now married to another firefighter, is one of only six women in the department, according to the lawsuit.

City officials did not return phone calls for comment on the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Wilmington. A department official said he had not seen it.

In her federal civil action, Huovinen alleges that in 2003, a male firefighter exposed himself to her repeatedly while she was in her bunk at a station as part of her duties. She said her sleeping area was separated from the men's sleeping area by only a curtain.

In 2004, at a different station, she said, she encountered male firefighters watching pornography on a television in the officers' quarters, and after she complained, one of the male firefighters "entered the plaintiff's sleeping area and jumped on the bed on top of her to simulate a sex act."

This firefighter was later promoted to lieutenant, according to the lawsuit, and continued to harass her as a superior.

Huovinen alleges that after the promotion in 2006, the man came up behind her, "rubbed her shoulders and said, 'I have to flirt with you now because I am about to become an officer.' "

She said he later made sexually demeaning remarks about her and criticized her job performance in front of other firefighters.

On one occasion, according to the lawsuit, he criticized her for reporting for duty out of uniform when she had to wait for 10 male firefighters to clear out of the locker room before she could go in and get dressed. The department does not provide separate changing facilities for female firefighters, according to the lawsuit.

In March 2006, after Huovinen took a wrong turn on the way to a fire scene, she alleged that the lieutenant, on their return to the station, shouted at her in a loud and threatening tone, and chased her into a bathroom, where she had to hold the door closed to keep him out.

"Male firefighters who made similar errors were never criticized or treated in that hostile, threatening, physical and inappropriate manner," according to the lawsuit.

A few weeks later, the lawsuit charges, he grabbed her by the hair and pulled her backward as she was rushing to a truck to respond to a call.

When she complained, Huovinen was told by a superior to "get a thicker skin," according to court papers.

Eventually, Huovinen was transferred to a different station, where she lost opportunities to earn overtime pay because of the possibility she would have to work with the lieutenant about whom she complained.

Similar complaints by another female firefighter about the same man were handled differently, with that woman being allowed to stay at her assignment while the man was transferred, according to the civil complaint.

"Like all firefighters, plaintiff risks her life every time she goes out on a call. Unlike other firefighters, however, plaintiff has been continually subjected to demeaning, discriminatory and hostile conduct," according to the lawsuit that seeks damages and Huovinen's reinstatement to her earlier position.

Republished with permission of The News Journal.