A recent appellate decision in Ohio illustrates that it's not only female EMS and fire department employees who sue for sexual harassment. Stephen Anderson, a terminated firefighter/EMT, sued the Ravenna Fire Department claiming that his discharge was in retaliation for complaining to his supervisors about sexual- and age-related harassment. (The appellate opinion doesn't state Anderson's age, but it appears he was older than most other firefighter/EMTs in the department.)
Anderson had initially been hired as a full-time firefighter and, like all others hired by this department, was placed on a one-year probationary period, during which time he could be dismissed simply for not completing the probation in a satisfactory manner.
The department had a policy prohibiting harassment of a sexual nature, as well as any harassment on the basis of age. This policy set forth a procedure for notifying management of prohibited activity. A supervisor would then review and investigate the allegation or specific incident reported. If the employee felt the supervisor was responsible for harassment, the employee was to report the behavior to that person's supervisor. The policy further stated that in an attempt to stop a simple problem, a complaint could be informal and handled at the supervisory level.
Several of the individually named defendants in this case testified in their depositions that off-color humor, sexual comments and jokes, excessive cursing, public nudity, obscene pictures and inappropriate touching were common in the firehouse environment. Some of the misconduct directed at Anderson included unwanted touching, the placement in his gear of mud-soiled Depends diapers and obscene sexual photographs of older men engaged in anal sex. Anderson testified he made numerous complaints "up the chain" about this inappropriate behavior, and he reported one of the alleged harassers was a female employee.
The record also showed numerous people made allegations of inappropriate behavior by Anderson himself, including reports that he called a female coworker a "whore" and discussed a visit to a brothel in front of female coworkers. Anderson denied these inappropriate comments or actions.
Employees had complained to their superiors about Anderson on a daily basis after he began carrying a tape recorder and recording as many comments and discussions as he could.
Anderson, who was attempting to bring collective bargaining into the department during this time, then found a document on the department computer titled "Complaints about Anderson," but he was unable to access the document. He continued to complain, and others continued to complain about him.
Eventually, the department suspended Anderson with pay and undertook a full investigation. At the end of the investigation, the chief told Anderson that he could resign with a good reference or he would be terminated. Anderson refused to resign and was terminated prior to the expiration of his probationary period.
The courts ruled against Anderson, largely because he had never taken his complaint past the supervisory level and had never made the township_s board of trustees aware of the harassment he allegedly endured from his co-workers. The court pointed out that the board had the sole authority to hire and fire, and that Anderson and other fire department employees had frequent contact with its members. The court also found that he had failed to demonstrate any violation of his constitutional rights.
Despite the outcome, this case demonstrates how a work environment can be less than wholesome for everyone involved and can create costly problems for an agency and municipality. Although Anderson didn't prevail in his lawsuit, the litigation took a great deal of time and money from the department, and ultimately from the public, to work through the appellate level of the federal courts -- time and money that could have been better spent if everyone had simply behaved themselves and acted like the professionals they-re supposed to be. From the testimony, it appears that almost everyone involved displayed inappropriate behavior in the station and that the department ultimately fostered an environment that created excessive distraction from the mission of providing fire suppression and EMS. The public has the right to expect and demand much better: open-minded medical professionals who can handle situations in a mature manner.
What can and should EMS administrators or fire chiefs do to prevent such inappropriate behavior in their agencies? First, you must set a good example. If you make lewd jokes, keep obscene material in your office or participate in sexually charged pranks, it's likely your subordinates will do the same because you are, in essence, giving them permission to do so. Terminate any conversations you hear or are involved in when they take a turn for the worse, and make it clear that you frown on such language or behavior.
Second, you should be actively looking for anything that indicates that such inappropriate behavior is happening when you_re not around. Stop by remote stations in the evenings to see what your crews are watching on TV, and monitor computer use for access to pornographic sites. Defuse any discussions about "hard" versus "soft" porn; none of it has any place in our work environment. Even if a specific individual is not being targeted, the atmosphere created by sexually oriented magazines, jokes and conversation can easily turn a workplace into what the courts term ˙a hostile environment,Ó which is illegal.
Third, remember that the law requires a prompt and thorough investigation of any complaints about sexually inappropriate behavior -- and be mindful that fire often follows smoke. After you investigate a complaint, keep an eye on both the employee (or employees) who complained and on the employee (or employees) complained about to ensure the situation has really been resolved, even ifyou don't find discipline is warranted. Retaliatory behavior against someone who has lodged a complaint is also against the law, and you should watch closely for it. Sexual harassment, like discrimination of any kind, is like a cancer that grows and multiplies in a hospitable environment and causes nothing but harm.
Last, and probably most important, as an EMS administrator, supervisor or chief, you must be mindful that the new EMS workplace is a diverse one and that women, minorities and gays are in it to stay. They aren't the cause of the problem; immature and inappropriate behavior is the problem. Be sure your workplace is one in which everyone with a passion for EMS feels welcome and in which every single person -- of whatever gender, race or sexual preference -- can be productive. People grow professionally only in a workplace that is free of harassment of any kind. Immature sexual behavior, as well as racist and homophobic behavior, simply have no place in emergency services.
W. Ann "Winnie" Maggiore, NREMT-P, JD, has been a full-time paramedic, an assistant fire chief, a state EMS administrator and a criminal prosecutor. She practices law full time in Albuquerque, N.M., defending physicians, dentists, nurses, law enforcement and EMS personnel against lawsuits. She also writes on EMS legal issues; frequently lectures at national conferences; and teaches legal issues to faculty, residents and paramedic students at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, where she holds a faculty appointment. Contact her firstname.lastname@example.org.
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