Sex bias issue boils at Albany Fire

Firefighter Shannon Baker is described as a “very valuable member of our department” by the city’s fire chief, but she says during her 10-plus years in Albany she’s been subjected to various types of gender discrimination, which resulted in a Bureau of Labor and Industries investigation and a $30,000 settlement. (David Patton/Mid-Valley Sunday)

A police officer’s daughter, Shannon Baker launched her own career in public safety while still a teenager growing up in Tumwater, Wash.

“I’d wanted to be a firefighter since I was 16, after dating someone who came from a family of firefighters,” said Baker, 33.

She became an Explorer in the Boy Scouts’ Learning for Life Program, designed to give girls as well as boys a head start in various careers including firefighting.

“Then I was a volunteer, an EMT, a paramedic,” she said. “I went to Central Washington (University) for my EMT basic, worked in Seattle on an ambulance to make sure I liked it, then went to Chemeketa for my paramedic certification. I lived at the Tangent and Polk County stations while I was going to school, and it will be 11 years for me in Albany in August.”

That decade-plus at the Albany Fire Department, though, has been an often-rocky stretch.

“From my very first shift, I knew something was wrong,” said Baker, one of two women among Albany’s 63 fire suppression personnel. “It was not how it felt at other stations.”

What was wrong, she came to decide, was a pervasive culture of sexism at the department, a workplace in which women were often disrespected and otherwise treated unfairly, or worse.

That culture is definitely not what the department is striving for, Chief John Bradner said.

“We want to be inclusive of everyone,” said the chief, who calls Baker “a very valuable member of our department.”

In turn, Bradner’s boss, City Manager Wes Hare, describes the department’s top man as “an outstanding fire chief” and says “the city of Albany is a great place to work, and the fire department as well.”

But Baker said she and other women firefighters have had to put up with uniforms, gear and facilities that didn’t serve women properly, and being held to different training standards than the men.

She’s also dealt with various off-color comments — including expletive-laced remarks in a department-wide training bulletin that used premature ejaculation and sex-starved bulls as analogies.

In addition, she endured an off-duty sexual assault by a volunteer who was subsequently terminated and removed from consideration for a paid position.

But the final straw was when she determined that Bradner, while speaking to her battalion chief and others, was not telling the truth about a conversation between Baker and Bradner regarding conditions for women.

That’s when she hired an attorney and filed a gender discrimination complaint, in June 2012, with the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries.

BOLI investigated and found “substantial evidence of an unlawful employment practice on terms and conditions on the basis of sex.”

The finding, released in March 2013, paved the way for a lawsuit against the city, which seven months later agreed to pay Baker a $30,000 settlement.

The city also agreed that the fire department would send her to two International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services training conferences, follow its own harassment and discrimination policy, remodel the women’s bathrooms at the older two of Albany’s four stations, and generally ensure a professional workplace — free of pornography, slurs and other inappropriate comments, and unreasonable barriers to on-the-job happiness and advancement.

Instead of workplace improvements, though, Baker says what she’s experienced in the aftermath of her BOLI complaint is increased hostility — the feeling that she’s being depicted as the problem.

“It’s by no means 100 percent of the department,” she said, “but the morale and environment have gotten worse.”

Asked specifically how, her first example is, “Someone urinated on my toilet seat. It was where I couldn’t have gotten it if I tried.”

Bradner said there’s now a policy in place forbidding male firefighters from using women’s bathrooms even if no women are on duty.

Regarding the deteriorating conditions, Baker continued: “I’ve heard rumors, ‘watch what you say, Shannon’s taking notes.’ I’m not.”

Unable from a practical standpoint to leave the department — she’s a single mother with a young son, and as a 10-year veteran finally enjoying job stability and financial security — she wasn’t sure what to do next.

She talked things over with a good friend at the department, longtime public information officer Wanda Omdahl.

Omdahl herself had been growing hopeless that the “Mad Men” fire department, as she had taken to calling it — referencing the television show about a chauvinistic ad agency in the 1960s — would ever shed its boorish legacy.

Thus her suggestion to Baker was that the PIO walk across Lyon Street to the Democrat-Herald and pass along the news of the BOLI investigation and settlement, both of which the paper was unaware of.

Omdahl figured letting the public in on things was her best chance at effecting change in the department, of which she’s been the public face for nearly 20 years.

“I just didn’t see things getting any better with our current leadership,” she said. “Things have just been gradually and steadily going downhill. We might eventually get that new station, but it’s the people that matter, and our morale is terrible.

“I don’t think the chief likes confrontation,” she said. “But he’s got the title and the salary. It’s up to him to face up to this stuff.”

The 17% solution

One hundred sixty-one years after Cincinnati established the nation’s first  fully paid fire department, the profession remains a heavily male one.

Bradner says 97 percent of America’s firefighters are male, and at 61 of 63, Albany is right in line with that.

The chief also says national fire officials have established a goal of increasing female membership to 17 percent but that it’s an imposing challenge, particularly for midsize departments like Albany’s, to recruit qualified women in large numbers.

Corvallis’ department, comparable in size to Albany with 51 firefighters, has had a woman advance as high as assistant chief/fire marshal (Claire Keith) and currently has a woman lieutenant, Christina Harrison.

In addition, Denise Giard reached the rank of emergency medical services chief in Corvallis before joining the Albany department in that role.

Sweet Home, meanwhile, has a female battalion chief, Shannon Pettner, among its nine firefighters.

Bradner, 49, who’s been the chief in Albany for five years and with the department for 25 years, joined the department shortly after one of the city’s first women firefighters, Tammy Lawrence.

Lawrence retired after 31 years and was by all accounts an exemplary firefighter/paramedic, yet despite aspiring to move up the ranks never got promoted beyond her starting level.

“It was definitely a man’s world and they didn’t want me there,” she said of the early days. “No one was going to help me advance to anything else. Eventually all the old farts moved on, and the younger ones coming in were much better. It wasn’t as bad, but still they weren’t crazy about having us there.

“When you were ready to advance and train, you kind of had to do it on your own time,” Lawrence said. “Even if it was on the schedule, it just would not happen. Other priorities of the lieutenant would take precedence.”

Bradner acknowledges those sorts of hurdles do exist, and for the men as well; sometimes calls get in the way of planned training sessions. He said that when he was training to be an apparatus operator, the first level above firefighter/paramedic, that he often did so on his days off.

And for her part, Lawrence knows that’s just how things were for everyone.

“A lot of people were training on their days off, but I was a single mom,” she said. “When they were training, I was picking my daughter up from school.

“The first three years were the worst three years of my life,” she said. “I could have had sexual harassment lawsuits many times, but I didn’t pursue any of that. One battalion commander asked if I’d ever thought about getting breast enlargements. You have to treat it like water on a duck’s back and let it roll off of you. There’s not a lot you can do. You can either accept it and carry on, or fight it, and I knew fighting it would make more people not want to be around me; they wouldn’t want to work with me. I loved the work and didn’t want to make waves.”

The hierarchy

Once someone has trained and tested to be an apparatus operator, he or she — one woman in the department’s history, Jessica Johns, who’s no longer in Albany, has reached that level — the person is eligible for further promotion up the fire suppression ranks.

The next step is lieutenant; there are 12 of those, one per station per 24-hour shift.

Above that are the three battalion chiefs, one for each of the three shifts. Scott Cowan, Kevin Anderson and Ryan Bond are the battalion chiefs, and above them is Assistant Chief Shane Wooton.

On roughly the same level as the assistant chief are Fire Marshal Mike Trabue, Training Chief Larry Allen and Emergency Medical Services Chief Mark Bambach, and then, at the top, Bradner.

Baker and Omdahl — and many of their male colleagues — say the problem of inappropriate, unprofessional behavior lingers because there hasn’t been clear direction from leadership that it won’t be tolerated, or much in the way of punishment when it does happen.

“Discipline is about changing behavior,” Bradner said. “Sometimes getting them training is enough. There are various steps we can take, up to termination.”

What BOLI determined

According to BOLI paperwork, while watching television in July 2012, a lieutenant asked Baker and other firefighters why it was OK to refer to white people as crackers or  honkies, but not OK for him to use the N-word. Baker said she asked him not to use that word and that he did so again, asking the same question.

Two days later, while Baker was talking with her crew in the work area, the lieutenant asked Baker to cover her ears and pretend she was not in the room so he could talk about his “junk.”

 Baker reported both incidents to Assistant Chief Wooten, as as well as Battalion Chief Anderson; an investigation followed, but one that didn’t include an interview of Baker, and no formal punishment was handed down.

Differing standards

Baker says that in September 2012, she was part of a group evaluating potential new hires, one of whom was a woman, when “several of the guys asked me to ‘go see if she’s hot,’” and that EMS Chief Bambach “was in the room and said nothing.”

She also says, “Chief Bambach commented on her clothes and on her body, which no one had done with respect to any of the male candidates.”

A couple of months after that, Baker’s complaint notes, there was a fire prevention staff meeting that featured a disagreement between two women. As the women debated one another, Fire Marshal Trabue made a noise like a cat, which he later explained was to illustrate that he thought the women were being “catty.”

The city disputes the “hot” comment, says multiple comments were made about candidates clothes (too casual, overdressed, etc.) and that what was said regarding the female candidate’s body was that it “looked like she would shred” the physical strength and stamina test administered to applicants.

Regarding the cat noise, when informed by a colleague that it was inappropriate workplace behavior, Trabue apologized to everyone who had been at the meeting.

Perceptions challenged

In addition to those situations, Baker can rattle off a long list of professional slights and verbal hostilities directed toward her and other women at the department. Those include being screamed at rather than instructed, often ignored to the point of ostracism, forced to make do with ill-fitting equipment,  having to complete training drills multiple times when men would only need to do so once, and generally made to feel that her presence as a woman was unwelcome.

“It challenges men’s perceptions of themselves, how manly they are, if women can do this work too,” the 5-foot-7, 133-pound Baker said.

Bradner said that in five years as chief and nine before that as assistant chief, he’s never personally witnessed anything that would constitute a discriminatory workplace practice.

“Years ago, yeah,” he said. “There’s been a lot of change in 25 years.”

One area of agreement between Bradner and Baker is that the fire service’s reputation for being a family, and firefighters’ tendency to think of the station as a home away from home, can make people forget that a fire station, even after the office staff leaves at 5 p.m., is still a professional workplace.

“The potential for that (inappropriate) behavior is there, and when there’s no leadership, it can get out of control,” Baker said. “The message has to come from the top down, but if the top doesn’t care, then there is no message.

“There’s great (workplace environment) training out there. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. I feel like the chief wants me to take him by the hand and tell him how to make things better for women.”

She said things were better under Kevin Kreitman, who preceded Bradner as chief. She notes the termination of the volunteer who groped her at a party at the home of another firefighter.

“If I got grabbed now and told the chief, he might do something, in a few weeks,” she said. “I might have to call a few times.”

Hare, Bradner’s supervisor, strongly disagrees with that assessment.

“John Bradner is an outstanding fire chief,” he said. “He’s committed to the community and to investigating problems and if necessary involving me, the human resources director and the insurance company (that covers the city against litigation and paid the settlement to Baker). We’re not trying to sweep anything under the rug.

“It sounds awful,” Hare said of some of the items in the BOLI complaint, “and certainly some of it is bad, but it’s not at all uncommon for employees to become aggrieved, and then you end up in a process.”

Hare said Baker’s is the first BOLI complaint lodged against Albany in his nearly nine years as city manager, and he wishes Baker would have pleaded her case with him before filing it.

“My door is always open, and a lot of people have come talk to me,” he said. “The city of Albany is a great place to work, and the fire department as well. People make mistakes, and when they do things that are wrong, when we’re made aware of them, we do something about it. Most people here are good people, but there are also lapses. We’re humans.”

Baker says she didn’t pursue anything with Hare because she’d lost confidence that alerting management of problems would have any positive results.

According to Albany Fire Department Lt. Tom Henke, “The person who brings something to light, they continue to be victimized instead of corrective action being taken. There’s a lack of action for things that have happened. Most of the people in the department are excellent people, but it doesn’t take very many bad apples, spread out, to do a lot of harm. I have two daughters and I’d never want either one of them to work at Albany Fire based on what I’ve seen there.”

Another lieutenant, Steve Lehman, said morale at the department has never been lower in his nearly 15 years in Albany and that “I feel terrible” for the city’s fire chief.

“I don’t believe he himself has discriminated against people — it’s just how he deals with things. We need to re-establish trust, but my honest opinion is nothing going to change. I wish he was closer to retirement age. My opinion is we’ve got weak leadership; therefore, problems that come up that need to be addressed at the time aren’t being addressed; they’re allowed to fester and boil  over. There’s not a lot of trust. The public needs to know.”

Lehman was Baker’s field training officer when she started in Albany and is her lieutenant now.

“I’ve seen her career grow, and I definitely think highly of her,” he said. “She’s a very good person, a hard worker, very smart.”

Added Henke: “She’s probably in the top 2 percent of the department for physical fitness; she works extremely hard at training and on calls, and she’s detail oriented.”

And unlike Lawrence, Baker is unwilling just to let workplace problems slide.

“Over the years, Shannon and the others, they’ve had it pretty rough dating back to the ’80s,” Lehman said. “We’ve made some progress since then, but I think our department has now hit a definite boiling point, centered around Shannon being willing to speak out regarding what she feels was mistreatment.

“I think some of it has been accidental, some purposeful, a mix probably. It’s definitely a cultural thing that’s systemic to the entire fire service.

“It’s still a great job, we’re trying to make the best of it, and our response won’t be affected — nobody would let it go that far. But we’re not inspired, let’s put it that way. We’re going to come and do the right thing and do the most we can for the community.”

Henke says leadership hasn’t helped the department’s attitude and culture adapt and modernize.

“It’s like a big frat,” he said, “but things change, times change, technology changes, and you need to change with it. Either you can choose to do it on your own or your employer helps you do it, but either way, you evolve. If you have a super influential leader who’s good at his job, you don’t stay stuck in the past.

“We’ve gone so far backward,” Henke said. “It’s like how right before a couple gets divorced the guy says he wants to go to counseling, but by then there’s no point; it’s broken. That’s where we’re at right now.”

Jessica Johns, who remains the only woman ever to reach apparatus operator status in Albany, spent five years with the department before leaving to work for another department.

She left shortly after qualifying as an operator — it took her roughly two years to get the necessary training, while most men are closer to six months, she says — because she had a sense she’d never work her way up the ranks.

“I just had the feeling I wasn’t going to go anywhere,” said Johns, who described the environment at the department as generally backward. “There were things that wouldn’t be tolerated at other places.”

Baker, Henke, Lehman and doubtless many others, of course, don’t want them tolerated in Albany anymore either, and Bradner says they won’t be.

“Steps have been taken, there have been multiple training sessions, there are stronger policies, they’re understood, and if problems come up, we’ll deal with them aggressively,” he says. “We’ve drawn a line in the sand. It’s spelled out very clear: Moving ahead, this is not allowed.”

Some are going to have to see it to believe it.

“Actions speak louder than words,” Baker said. “The enviroment sucks. I don’t regret coming here; I regret not leaving earlier. But I’m not going to shut up and I’m not going to go away. I want to see what happens. I want to stick it out and see things change.”

Follow Steve Lundeberg on Twitter, @AnyGivenLundy, or email him at steve.lundeberg@lee.net

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