Canadian Female Firefighters Want To Fight Fires, Not Harassment

VANCOUVER (CP) -- Women firefighters in Canada sometimes find themselves battling more than blazes in a male-dominated job.

They frequently have to fight for respect and against sexual harassment in the rough world of the firehouse where ribald humour may be less than welcome, if not downright derogatory, say some women in the fire service.

Women find themselves working in firehalls designed solely for men, dealing with grooming regulations made for men, being issued protective gear made for men and without policies regarding pregnancy and reproductive safety.

The issue recently came under the spotlight when a Burnaby, B.C. firefighter, Captain Boni Prokopetz, went public with her B.C. Human Rights Tribunal complaint against her employer.

Prokopetz claims she was subject to continual harassment over 11 years, including a sexual assault.

She had been on paid stress leave while her complaints were being investigated, but although the investigations are not complete, on Wednesday, the city ordered her back to work with the colleagues she has accused.

She's not sure if she can do that.

``I can't go back to work. What am I to face there especially now that I've come public?'' she asked. ``What they've done to poison my work environment is beyond belief.''

Among the complaints Prokopetz has claimed in her human rights filing are that:

-One superior sexually assaulted her in January;

-Another superior repeatedly called her a ``dumb bitch'';

-Firefighters frequently watched porn in the firehall;

-Porn was left on her bunk;

- She was told she should give her emergency gear to a stripper in the firehall.

The claims are allegations only and have not been proven in a court of law or at the tribunal.

Prokopetz has also filed a criminal complaint with Burnaby RCMP against the superior she accuses of sexually assaulting her by groping her buttocks and kissing her.

RCMP Cpl. Dave Conrad said he could only confirm ``that there is an investigation involving members of the Burnaby Fire Department and that it's under review by Crown counsel.''

Prokopetz further alleges in the human rights filing provided to The Canadian Press by her lawyer that in her position as a fire investigator, male officers would not call her out to investigate fire scenes where people died.

Her complaint alleges that is contrary to the Fire Services Act.

Prokopetz said she has received dozens of calls from women firefighters across the country urging her to keep up her fight against the male-dominated firehouse culture.

``It's a culture that's just not willing to accept us,'' she said.

Prokopetz said the union, the Burnaby Firefighters Association, is complicit in maintaining the boys' club atmosphere in the fire hall.

The association is Local 323 of the International Federation of Firefighters.

In a prepared statement, local president Michael Hurley said he would not engage in a media debate on the Prokopetz case.

``Such debate may negatively impact the mediation process or any eventual hearing of the complaint,'' he said.

A call to the Burnaby mayor's office was not returned.

Kenneth Kelly, president of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs agreed that chiefs set the tone for departments, but said a complaint such as Prokopetz's was beyond his purview.

``From our perspective, I'd have to probably say it's a non-issue because our association represents chief officers from across the country. If you're a chief officer, that's it. We don't discriminate. We just consider you an equal automatic.''

Kelly said he's met many satisfied female officers but said he is aware of individual, localized complaints.

Prokopetz said her problems go beyond the alleged harassment.

She said she had equipment issues from the start when she was issued size large men's gloves.

``They just weren't functional,'' she said, recounting a story of collecting an oil canister at a car accident. ``I ended up slashing my hand.''

Gender-clashes in fire services resulting in complaints are not uncommon in Canada.

In 2002, a feud between five Edmonton female paramedics and firefighters ended with an out-of-court settlement after the firefighters filed a $1.5-million defamation suit.

The union representing the paramedics alleged the women had encountered pornography, naked men, and insulting comments - including comments about gang rapes - in city fire halls.

In 1999, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that a physical fitness test used by Canada's firefighting services discriminated against women and could not be used.

B.C.'s Ministry of Forests argued that the standard was set to ensure that firefighters are sufficiently fit to protect themselves, their colleagues and threatened communities.

Firefighter Tawny Meiorin insisted that experience was more important than an arbitrary physical test, and that women's aerobic capacity is less than men's, making the test discriminatory.

The Supreme Court agreed, ruling that ``the essence of equality is to be treated according to one's own merit, capabilities, and circumstances. True equality requires that differences be accommodated.''

Female firefighters remain a minority in Canada.

In Calgary, 18 of 1,022 firefighters are women, said Calgary Fire service spokesman Capt. John Conley.

Conley said the service has consulted with the military and other fire services to create policies that are in line with human rights needs.

``Safety is obviously of paramount importance,'' Conley said. ``We have had sensitivity in the workplace (training).''

Terese Floren, executive director of Women in the Fire Service, a U.S.-based advocacy organization for female firefighters worldwide, said if changes in any workplace _ such as introducing women into a male-dominated situation _ are causing stress, education is the way to go.

``Certainly sexual harassment in general is not unheard of in the fire service,'' Floren said. ``The situation is getting better as fire departments have become more aware of it.

``Sometimes it's just a matter of better communication skills and better understanding and sometimes it's a matter of whacking people over the knuckles a few times until they get that it's really not OK to address people in certain ways or have certain expectations of people because of their gender or their race.''

Prokopetz said such training would go a long way in Burnaby.

And, she added, ``there's a lack of corrective measures once something's discovered. There has to be repercussions for peoples' actions.''