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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Buckhorn wisely moves fast at Tampa Fire Rescue

Tampa finally has taken appropriate steps for its female firefighters by ordering the installation of privacy walls in sleeping quarters and requiring additional diversity training for all Tampa Fire Rescue employees. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s announcement of the changes on Tuesday was the appropriate response.
Tampa finally has taken appropriate steps for its female firefighters by ordering the installation of privacy walls in sleeping quarters and requiring additional diversity training for all Tampa Fire Rescue employees. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s announcement of the changes on Tuesday was the appropriate response.
Published Apr. 14, 2015

Tampa finally has taken appropriate steps for its female firefighters by ordering the installation of privacy walls in sleeping quarters and requiring additional diversity training for all Tampa Fire Rescue employees. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn's announcement of the changes on Tuesday was the appropriate response to complaints by some female firefighters who say they have long been victims of sexual harassment and feared retaliation if they complained. This is how a city should acknowledge its failures and demonstrate its commitment to a professional work environment for all of its employees.

Construction began Tuesday on retrofitting Tampa's 16 fire stations that do not have separate sleeping quarters or curtains for female firefighters. On Buckhorn's order, the city of Tampa will install 6-foot-high partition walls in those fire stations. Officials expect the job to take about a month and cost $160,000, a small price to pay to reasonably accommodate female firefighters.

The mayor's office also announced expanded diversity training for all Tampa Fire Rescue employees, which will be implemented within the next six months.

The issues at Tampa Fire Rescue came to light in March when a personnel chief resigned after a female firefighter said he had sexually harassed her. That incident led to a formal investigation. Separately, several female firefighters told the Tampa Bay Times that they had been victims of sexual harassment and forced to share bathrooms and sleeping quarters with men, some of whom slept in their underwear. Women who told superiors about their concerns said they were routinely met with disdain from male co-workers and often passed over for promotions.

Last week, Tampa Fire Rescue Chief Tom Forward researched the cost of privacy curtains for open dorm areas and issued a memo requiring all employees to sleep in gym shorts and proper undergarments. He also re-enforced a 2013 policy directing captains to allow women to use officers' private bathrooms. It is disappointing that the changes had to come from the mayor instead of the fire chief, who has long maintained that there was no money in the agency's budget to address privacy concerns. But at least change finally appears to have come.

Women have been part of Tampa Fire Rescue for nearly 40 years. It shouldn't have taken the glare of public scrutiny to press fire officials and city government into addressing their long-standing concerns.

After the privacy walls are in place, the real work must begin. Diversity training should help. But Forward and his captains will have to do the heaviest lifting. They should create and maintain an environment that is welcoming to all workers. And they will need to institute and enforce consequences for staffers who violate expectations. Going forward, the message should be that harassing, alienating and seeking payback against those who protest harassment will not be tolerated.

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