The Boston Fire Department is a throwback.
Not the fun kind of exercise in nostalgia, like roller skating to Donna Summer records, or an old-fashioned parade featuring vintage automobiles
Rather, it seems like a relic of a bad time when women were nearly absent from the workplace, and the few on the scene were treated like interlopers.
The Globe reported over the weekend that several women in the department have complained about unequal treatment in the city’s firehouses. Those allegations come after a criminal complaint by one firefighter that a colleague assaulted her in a Jamaica Plain firehouse in January. The accused has pleaded not guilty.
An astonishing fact: On a force of 1,500, just 16 Boston firefighters are women — barely 1 percent. Even in an overwhelmingly male profession, that number is ridiculously low. Not surprisingly, the department has just one female commanding officer.
In interviews with the Globe’s Meghan E. Irons, current and former female firefighters described an atmosphere rife with abuse in various forms: unnecessary touching, comments, innuendo. They described a reluctance to complain, out of fear of not fitting in, of not wanting to seem incapable of handling the job.
In response, Mayor Martin J. Walsh announced an independent review of the department, to be conducted by attorney Kay Hodge, a partner at Stoneman, Chandler and Miller LLP.
The minuscule number of women on the job is a symptom of a larger problem: You’d be hard-pressed to find another area of city government that has resisted change as stubbornly and successfully as the Boston Fire Department. It is as insular as they come.
It’s an unusual workplace in other ways. Firefighters work together in 24-hour shifts, sharing meals, sleeping in tight quarters. Camaraderie is critical. That can only make it more difficult to be viewed as a complainer, as a problem teammate.
Those who have raised issues about on-the-job treatment have gotten varying levels of satisfaction. It says a lot that the department’s “female liaison” to the brass, veteran firefighter Julia Rodriguez, was recently removed for being too negative.
Fire Commissioner Joe Finn insisted when we talked on Tuesday that he has never and would never tolerate misbehavior toward any member of his department.
“We certainly take all these claims and allegations seriously,” he said. “I welcome the independent investigation . . . . We are committed to providing a supportive and safe environment for all our firefighters, especially our female firefighters.”
But what the Fire Department really needs is more than a safe environment. It needs a serious change of culture.
The first and most critical change is demographic. It needs more women, period. Nationally, women make up 7 percent of firefighters. Sure that’s a small number — but it is seven times the makeup of Boston’s. Being a woman in this department will be a challenge as long as women are as rare as unicorns.
Changing that will mean looking at hiring. The Police Department has successfully employed a cadet program to boost diversity, but for various reasons doing the same in the BFD has never gotten traction.
The city’s cherished veteran’s preference needs to be on the table, too. In both the police and fire departments it serves as a tool to preserve the status quo. Having served the country is certainly worthy of consideration. But it shouldn’t be a job requirement, and that is what it has essentially become. That’s not serving the city well. But touching that policy will require real political guts on the part of Walsh and the City Council.
Dragging this department into the modern era is a battle worth waging — if only for the sake of the brave female firefighters who deserve more than platitudes from their bosses about what won’t be tolerated.
They deserve more than tolerance. They deserve a 21st-century workplace.Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reaches at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @adrian_walker.