Julia M. O’Rourke v. City of Providence,
Purdue University Global
This paper is being submitted on September 4, 2018, for FS208 Legal Aspects of Emergency Services.
Until 1990, no female firefighters had ever served in the City of Providence Fire Department. In January 1992, O’Rourke and six other women who had passed a written examination were admitted to the City’s firefighter six-month training program, along with 77 male trainees. O’Rourke was hired under the City’s newly implemented affirmative action policy (case law).
In January of 1992, the Department Chief publicized a sexual harassment policy. The policy prohibited firefighters from keeping sexually explicit books and magazines, viewing sexually explicit movies, or making sexual jokes at their respective stations. The superior officer at each station was responsible for enforcing the policy, and they had been trained to do so. New firefighters were to be instructed during two hours of sensitivity training, including a component on sexual harassment, to be incorporated into the curriculum of their six-month training program.
O’Rourke underwent this six-month training program. During this period and often in the presence of supervisors, overtly sexual behavior was directed toward O’Rourke. For example, during a class break, a male trainee, Ferro, passed around a video camera playing scenes of Ferro having sex with his girlfriend. The instructor was in the classroom and did nothing (case law 2001). In another example once assigned to shift work, instead of just from a co-worker, harassment was now coming from the company officer on her shift. A specific event occurred where the company officer threw pieces of paper with O’Rourkes number out of the engine while going past a bar in the own. Despite being asked to stop by O’Rourke, the company officer continued and laughed (case law 2001). Also at one point, she was warned that there was the possibility of there being a closed circuit camera in her room. She felt completely invaded and violated in a place that should feel at the very least safe (case law 2001).
This is just one example of many that O’Rourke faced in her first years with the department. Almost every instance can be tied to hostile work environment sexual harassment. O’Rourke introduced evidence of harassment spanning the entire duration of her employment at the fire department from 1992 to 1994-including her time spent in training in 1992 (case law 2001).
O’Rourke remained out of work for over two years. As a result of the stress she experienced, O’Rourke gained a total of 80 pounds. She was anxious and afraid to leave the house, and was particularly anxious about encountering Providence firefighters (Case law 2001).
Final verdicts won for O’Rourke throughout the year of 1997 on numerous cases on the basis of hostile work environment sexual harassment. O’Rourke was victorious in receiving up to $800k on the basis of sexual harassment.
Steps to Reduce/Prevent Harassment
There are some steps that the fire department can take to help address sexual discrimination and harassment against women in the fire service, including the following:
1. Publicizing management commitment through a policy statement that clarifies the unacceptable behaviors, spells out the penalties and disciplinary process for violations, and holds supervisors responsible for conduct in their units through the performance appraisal system.
2. Efficient and responsive complaint channels that take allegations seriously, process them as violations of the law, protect the victim, and provide counseling for the involved parties.
3. Effective enforcement imposing penalties against the perpetrators and those who knowingly allow the behavior.
4. Ongoing and required sexual harassment awareness training for supervisors and all employees that educates them in how to keep the workplace free from sexual harassment and how to handle and report complaints, and, just as important, provides them with opportunities for informally communicating and sharing their perceptions about appropriate behavior between the genders in the workplace.
5. Periodic monitoring of the workplace through anonymous and confidential surveys of all employees with results posted, distributed, discussed in sexual awareness training sessions, and monitored by management.
The case of Julia M. O’Rourke v. City of Providence was landmark in setting a standard not only for fellow firefighters in all male departments with imminent female presence, but also sent a red flag warning to all managers in the professional setting across the country. We can assume that this case set precedence, training across the profession of firefighting was implemented to prevent further incident such as this. Lessons can be taken away from this experience at all levels of those in the fire department. Having a work place where mostly males work closely with one another and have unique bonds built through hardship, could possibly incite rather crude behavior to some extent. With the introduction of females and having the solid traditional roots of friendly hazing being nearly eliminated in departments, we must act more in a professional manner with one another at all times. For many of those that have been in the fire service for a long time, these ideas and theories seem farfetched. As a newer day and generation enters into the fire service, females are becoming more welcomed as well as those with different sexual orientations. Every firefighter has their own personal opinions and political stance on those issues however, using the time as an employee of those respective communities as a platform to air those issues out is neither the place nor the time. If we can work together in a safe manner and provide the utmost professional service to those in need, we should put aside our differences to accomplish one goal of saving lives.