Women face multiple hurdles within Tampa Fire Rescue

The dorm bathroom available for men and women to use at Tampa Fire Rescue Station 1 in downtown Tampa. Female firefighters are able to use a separate bathroom, previously designated for officers.
The dorm bathroom available for men and women to use at Tampa Fire Rescue Station 1 in downtown Tampa. Female firefighters are able to use a separate bathroom, previously designated for officers.
Published April 6, 2015

TAMPA — Nearly 40 years after the first female firefighter began working at Tampa Fire Rescue, a majority of the city's fire stations still lack designated women's bathrooms and private changing areas.

Many male firefighters wear boxers when they sleep in the open dorms at firehouses. But some female firefighters who sleep in T-shirts and underwear have become targets for vulgar and sexist insults.

And in some firehouses, verbal abuse and harassment reaches levels that one male firefighter described as "a living hell."

Fire stations across the nation have had to adjust their policies as more women enter the male-dominated field. But some say Tampa Fire Rescue, which employs nearly double the national average of women, has been slow to adapt.

After news of a personnel chief retiring amid a sexual harassment investigation broke last month, female firefighters began talking to the Tampa Bay Times about discrimination. Their concerns ranged from overt sexual advances from male fire department employees to retaliation for reporting problems.

"A lot of the men on the job are fine with working with women, but the ones who aren't seem to be really loud," said Tanja Vidovic, who has been with the department since 2008. "It's accepted, people aren't reprimanded for it. And it's an environment of you're a tattletale and you're ruining the party if you say anything."

Although 43 of the 622 sworn firefighters are women, fire Chief Tom Forward said the department is still working on making changes.

Many of the concerns, he said, such as privacy curtains, qualify as "quality-of-life" issues. With a limited budget, he said those matters take a backseat to more pressing items, such as a leaky roof.

Some female firefighters say they are afraid to raise complaints about harassment or a hostile work environment because, many times, the actions are enabled by the captains. While Forward said he has not witnessed or heard of these issues, he said he's not naive.

"Firefighters are very protective of their whole nest, they really are," said Forward, who has been with Tampa Fire almost 32 years. "Sometimes maybe to the detriment of the individual who's having concerns."

• • •

Of Tampa's 22 fire stations, only six have partitioned sleeping areas and designated male and female bathrooms and showers.

The remaining stations, making up more than 72 percent of the department, are laid out in the same manner as when the department was made up of only men.

At those stations, women can either wait until there are no men in the bathroom and lock the door or use the officers' bathrooms, which often requires walking through their private room.

The situation is different in other local fire departments.

All of the St. Petersburg Fire Rescue and Hillsborough Fire Rescue stations, for example, have separate male and female bathrooms and showers. And all of those stations, except eight of the 43 in Hillsborough, also have individual dorms or partitions and sleeping curtains.

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Danielle Nalven said even though she always had "very respectful experiences" in her five years using the Tampa Fire restrooms and sleeping in the open dorms, she wished there was a designated female bathroom and privacy partitions.

"I personally don't want to go to the bathroom next to a guy and I feel bad locking everybody else out," Nalven said. "Dividers are nice for anyone to have."

Without curtains, privacy in the dorms is nonexistent. There is no dress policy for the department, meaning individuals can sleep in whatever they want. While most men sleep in shorts or pants, others prefer boxers.

Hannah Gray, the firefighter at the center of a sexual harassment investigation that led to a personnel chief's resignation, regularly slept in a T-shirt and underwear. She said she was called a slut and a whore by fellow firefighters, many of them not stationed with her, for doing so.

District Chief Sue Tamme, who also deals with these issues in her role as secretary of the International Association of Women in Fire & Emergency Services, said a minimum dress policy would provide defined regulations.

"This is a place of employment. That question should be answered up front," Tamme said. "We've had 38 years to answer that question."

Forward said no such policy has ever been considered because it comes down to common sense and courtesy.

"We don't hire children; we hire professionals here," Forward said. "We really haven't had a situation, to my knowledge, where anybody has been put in a bad situation."

Tamme, the first female district chief in Tampa, said women in any fire department aren't likely to complain about things such as dress, privacy and bathrooms because they don't want the repercussions that can arise when a female complains.

"I don't know of any experience where a man complains and there's been that sort of backlash," Tamme said. "We're not going to complain over something as benign as somebody not being dressed appropriately on one given day because we love every other aspect of the job."

Though women have requested privacy curtains for years, none has been installed.

Forward said privacy curtains have been discussed the past five years, but have been stalled by budget constraints and bureaucratic red tape.

"Obviously this situation brings to bear a concern that really needs to be readdressed," Forward said. "We need to go ahead and put more energy into getting the curtain system moving forward."

• • •

Some women who have spoken out against the status quo said they have faced a backlash, including verbal harassment, lower performance reviews and being skipped on promotion lists.

Several women told the Times about unwelcome sexual advances from colleagues and supervisors. When they rebuked these advances or raised concerns against other mistreatment, they said retaliation sometimes followed.

"If you're up for a promotion, you really can't say anything," Vidovic said. "They will not promote you."

Other firefighters endure verbal harassment from individuals at their stations.

"They absolutely humiliate you," Gray said. "They gang up on you. They embarrass you."

The negative attitude toward Gray started before she even arrived at the station, said firefighter Steven Appel, who was already assigned to Station 21 B shift. For the most part, Appel said, it was perpetuated by one man.

"He was a sexist, he was a misogynist and it came out everyday, and he went unchecked," said Appel, who has been with the department since 1994. "All this behavior was enabled (by the captain)."

Gray, a former police officer, documented her experiences, filling a notebook and a half with incidents.

Though Appel is speaking out now about the verbal abuse he witnessed against Gray, he said he carries guilt over not doing something sooner.

"The hostile work environment toward her was just unbelievable," Appel said. "She was going through hell."

• • •

The women who spoke with the Times were quick to say that a majority of the department is made up of kind, respectful people. But even women who say they love their careers and haven't experienced harassment describe discrimination on the job.

"You do have some of the old-school guys that don't really feel like a female can do the job," Nalven said. "Nothing you do would ever be good enough."

Nalven said she feels many men with those ideas are retiring, but when she comes across them, instead of raising concerns, she takes it upon herself to avoid the problem.

After working for a captain who repeatedly passed her over for promotions, Nalven transferred to another station.

"I realized, 'Your day is never going to get better, just move on,' " Nalven said. "I can't prove myself every single day. It's exhausting."

Tamme said her role with the international women's group has given her experience with "the pace at which change occurs."

"My expectations are realistic," she said.

Other women echo the understanding that change takes time, even 37 years after the first women joined the department.

"You can't go from 100 percent male-dominated to changing them overnight," Nalven said. "They are slowly going toward making it more female-friendly."

Times news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Caitlin Johnston at or (813) 226-3401. Follow @cljohnst.