The Woman-hating Culture Inside the Dallas Fire Department
They’ve suffered years of sexual harassment. Now a handful of women have had enough. The fight that is ripping apart Dallas Fire-Rescue.
It felt like fate, the events that led Leanne Siri to work for Dallas Fire-Rescue. She was about to snorkel off Grand Cayman during a Caribbean cruise three years ago when she got word that her 20-year-old son, an engineering college student, had crashed his Camaro. The fire chief of Lewisville, Richard Lasky, heard the collision while relaxing at home and leaped from his recliner to help, pulling Siri’s son from the mangled car. The boy’s brainstem was torn. His friend in the passenger seat was dead. It seemed pointless, but Lasky held his airway open until paramedics arrived.
A month later, as Siri camped at her son’s bedside in the hospital, she called Chief Lasky. He said, “I’m so sorry you lost your son.”
“Oh no, no, no,” Siri said. “He’s alive. Thanks to you.” Thanks to an off-duty fireman who cared enough to stand up and help a stranger.
Two months after the accident, Eddie Burns Sr., then a deputy fire chief in Fort Worth, told Siri he had been selected to lead Dallas Fire-Rescue. He asked if she’d come onboard. As a corporate coach, Siri had worked with Burns before. Now he wanted to create a job for her as an executive officer in charge of organizational development for the entire Dallas department. It would be a tough assignment. She’d be an outsider working for the department’s first black chief. And the position would pay her only about a third of her current income. But the job would require less travel and allow her to stick close to her son, who had just surfaced from a coma. What’s more, she had a debt to repay. “A fireman gave me my son back,” Siri says, her voice trembling. How could she say no?
If fate led her to the department, something less poetic drove her from it. Three years after signing up, in April, she filed complaints with state and federal workforce commissions and sued the city and several fire chiefs, alleging that she had been sexually harassed and discriminated against repeatedly during her tenure as the highest-ranking civilian woman in the department. Siri even accused her onetime benefactor, Chief Burns, of perpetuating a long tradition of hostility toward women in the fire service by ignoring complaints and promoting known offenders. “You can talk passionately about equality, diversity, and leadership,” she says. “But when it came down to having the guts to do something about it, he went the other way.”
Siri isn’t alone. Six other female employees of Dallas Fire-Rescue have stepped forward recently complaining of sexual harassment or discrimination. Their stories and a review of hundreds of pages of internal affairs reports reveal a deeply troubled fire department in which women have been marginalized and, in a couple of instances, even assaulted as supervisors allegedly took no action. Whatever becomes of their cases, these women and their accounts of decades of mistreatment have blown the doors right off the fire station.
To those critical of Chief Burns, Siri was the embodiment of his missteps. She may have walked the walk of an executive leader in suits and long skirts, but many of the troops saw this buxom blonde intruder as “Satan in heels.”
Chief Eddie Burns was supposed to be the face of change for Dallas Fire-Rescue. The charismatic, handsome new chief with the gleaming smile, the clipped moustache, and the “Leadership Under Fire” mantra set out to put his mark on the department. A week after he was sworn in as chief in April 2006, Burns looked out into a conference room of the World Trade Center packed for the department’s annual awards ceremony and promised to turn Dallas Fire-Rescue into a “world-class” establishment. “Together we will blaze the trail into the future,” he said. “This is going to be a fire department we can all be proud of.”
Burns did go on to make notable progress. He opened training opportunities to the entire department that were once reserved for a select few. He relieved some of the pressure on the EMS division by adding a new rescue station, and he increased the department’s CPR survival rate by 55 percent. He secured $3 million in grants for the urban search and rescue team. He even got the presidents of the three squabbling firefighters’ unions to sit at the table together, and he has diversified the command staff as fire departments across the country are striving to do.
But Chief Burns’ first impression on the department wasn’t good. His remarks that day at the World Trade Center were not well received by many of the firefighters sizing up their new boss. “We were all looking at each other, scratching our heads, saying, ‘Did he just—?’” says one firefighter with more than 20 years of experience. “It was very insulting.” Another firefighter puts it this way: “What the hell were we before [he got the job]?”
Burns’ supporters say the resistance was to be expected. “The man is trying to do something with this department that has never been done before,” says James Hill, a firefighter with 34 years of experience who is press secretary for the Dallas Black Fire Fighters’ Association. “But people are comfortable in their own lounge chairs.”
Burns refused to be interviewed for this story. But he told D Magazine in writing: “Changing perceptions takes time, but it is possible to do so. I am proud to be a member of this department, and, as a team, we will overcome the past misperceptions.”
Burns wanted Leanne Siri, a white woman with a corporate background, to round out his “rainbow coalition” and serve as his right hand as he shook up the old guard, Siri says. Instead, to those critical of Burns, she was the embodiment of his missteps. Siri may have walked the walk of an executive leader in suits and long skirts, speaking with confidence and authority, but many of the troops saw this buxom blonde intruder as “Satan in heels.” D.D. Pierce, the president of Dallas’ most powerful firefighters’ union (who was once punished for choking out a female firefighter during a firehouse spat) led the charge against the “fluff” and Mount High. He and the other rank-and-file firefighters were furious that the new chief wasted money hiring an outsider to do his job when what they really needed was more mechanics and backup equipment not held together with baling wire. Their view of Siri wasn’t personal, one veteran firefighter says. “It could have been Joe Montana,” he says; they still would have rejected him.
Siri was incredulous when she heard their murmurings of revolt those first days at work. Macho culture she could handle. She has navigated the world of corporate boardrooms, raised three sons, and married a police sergeant. But the attacks at Dallas Fire-Rescue continued, Siri says, behind her back in the hallway or spat right to her face in command staff meetings, until the effort to fight them off became physically and emotionally exhausting. They would say it under their breath after she walked into the room, loud enough so she could hear. “She’s the one f---ing the chief,” Siri repeats, cringing. Or, even worse: “n---er lover.”
In her previous career as a Leadership Management International franchisee, Siri won contracts with the federal government, Dell, and Citigroup. She served on President George W. Bush’s business advisory council, was Texas Businesswoman of the Year, and received the Congressional Gold Medal of Leadership. But many firemen and paramedics assumed that she had slept her way into the job with Dallas Fire-Rescue. A strong leader would have swept the soot out of the chimney before it caught fire. But the rumor spread, and, after WFAA submitted an open records request, Burns and Siri were forced to share their e-mails and phone records. The reporters found nothing, but the attacks and outrageous behavior continued.
Joel Lavender, the beaming face of the Dallas fire department for years when he worked as a public information officer, e-mailed her a message portraying a naked woman, Siri says. When she walked into the office of James Adams, then head of internal affairs, to discuss diversity and harassment issues, she was startled to see a large photograph propped on his desk of a nude woman bearing a rifle. And then there was the time a male medical presenter flashed Siri and a room full of mostly men a slide of a woman with her legs spread during a breech birth. His title for the slide: “Pucker Up.”
The command staff—the leaders expected to set the tone for the department—treated her with the same lewd disdain, she says. Assistant Chief Robert Bailey summoned her by making an hourglass shape with his hands. Battalion Chief Max Kirk allegedly announced, “We’d be better off if she stayed in the kitchen.” And Deputy Chief Kenneth Johnson told her at a commanders meeting in front of Chief Burns and everyone: “I don’t think a woman should be in your position.” When she protested, “This is sexual harassment,” Johnson refused to apologize. Instead, he offered her a hug.
Most bosses would consider the behavior Siri describes in her lawsuit as firing offenses. Not Dallas Fire-Rescue. When Siri complained about all this, Chief Burns just shook his head and said, “That’s firefighters,” Siri claims.
According to her, the chief was part of the problem: his idea of a recruit pep talk in 2008 was to tell the troops, “Go be a PIMP!” (using the word as an acronym for success, he said) and he sang lines from the hip-hop song “It’s Hard out Here for a Pimp” outside Siri’s office door. The department had budgeted $175,000 for training on racism and sexual discrimination, but Burns refused to spend it, Siri says. (They used some of the money to buy an embroidery machine.)
Siri lost even more respect for the chief when she found evidence of his possible romantic liaisons with city staff. One day, he left his phone behind and asked her to retrieve it. She discovered a deluge of sexually explicit messages with a city employee, whom the chief had sent a sexy photo of himself titled “just for you.” Burns eventually hired the woman as the department’s equal opportunity compliance manager. He has denied having an inappropriate relationship with the employee. The chief, a man known to pull out his Bible and quote from it, also had a sexual relationship with another city employee, Siri claims in her lawsuit. She and her lawyer, Amy Davis, are fighting with the city’s legal team to obtain their phone records.
Making matters worse, the chief’s weaknesses weren’t just limited to the flesh. According to Siri, Burns’ job was too much for him, and he delegated many of his duties to her, including writing his e-mails and speeches. “I’ll handle the fire side, and you do the management,” she says the chief told her. Word got out that she was running the fire department. The blow back singed them both. During a meeting once, City Manager Mary Suhm asked Burns a question, Siri says, but the chief stopped in midreply and turned to Siri to finish his sentence. According to Siri, Suhm warned Chief Burns: “That’s why they think you are weak.” After that, Siri claims she was ordered to be seen and not heard at fire meetings. Chief Burns once kicked her under the table—hard—to make sure she didn’t forget.
Contrary to Siri’s account, Chief Burns says the first time the city heard about some—if not all—of her claims was when she sent a 37-page demand letter to the city manager and then abruptly filed suit, before the Texas Workforce Commission and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission finished reviewing her allegations. Even if his department is male dominated, Burns says, he does not believe that Dallas Fire-Rescue is a difficult place for women to work, much less openly hostile or degrading.
So what should one make of Siri’s complaints? Is she simply overwrought, or out of touch, or a gold-digging liar? Siri has had trouble with another fire department. Before she was hired in Dallas, she conducted leadership training for Richardson’s firefighters. But she apparently couldn’t establish good rapport with them, and the next time they needed to do the training, they hired someone else (another female civilian). And this champion for women’s rights included in her original lawsuit two of the four female chiefs leading Dallas Fire-Rescue: Assistant Chief and Fire Marshal Debra Carlin, a respected administrator and trailblazer in her own right, whose father, husband, and son all fought fire; and Cynthia Michaels, whom Siri accused of leering at the breasts of subordinates and Siri herself. (Both declined to comment.)
Wilson ripped off her mask and inhaled syrupy smoke. Outside the burning house, she fell to her knees. After the blaze was contained, the other firefighters circled her, yelling, “Women don’t belong here! You should have taken care of your equipment!” “I know I checked every little thing. I had been
sabotaged,” Wilson says.
Dallas Fire-Rescue began its struggle to integrate women into the ranks in 1977 with Sherrie Wilson. Wilson was 20 years old when she walked into the firehouse to begin work as the department’s first female firefighter. “Good morning!” she said, flashing her brightest Duncanville Pantherette cheerleader smile. The guys beamed back at the 6-foot-tall woman, but no one said a word. Then the captain walked over and started humping her leg.
Wilson didn’t know what to say. Finally she asked, still smiling, “Are you finished?”
“I just wanted to find out what kind of a sport you are,” the captain said.
After that, the men of Fire Station 3 taught her everything they knew about fighting fire and riding the box. “They treated me like a sister,” Wilson says. Of course, there were more scrapes after that. One time, the guys cuffed her to a tree and set off the sprinklers. But she gave as good as she got. If a guy popped her on the butt with a towel, it didn’t bother her. “I might turn around and slug him on the arm, but I’m not going to run to the chief and go, ‘Waaah, he sexually harassed me!’ That’s not how we play,” says Wilson, who is 51 now and still works for the department, in dispatch.
But there was one incident with her fellow firefighters more frightening than horseplay. Wilson was just a rookie swinging to a shift at an unfamiliar station. The guys seemed as nice as could be. Too nice, she thinks, looking back.
At the beginning of her shift, she walked through her ceremony of preparations. She checked for water leaks. She set her boots facing the engine so she could grab the rail, step in, and throw her suspenders on. She laid out her coat so she could find it in the dark, and she gave special attention to her air mask. She strapped it on to test its seal. She swiveled it a three-quarter turn and purged the air valve.
At 10 that morning, the bell hit, and they raced to a burning frame house. Wilson pulled her mask on, stretched her fingers into her gloves, and hunkered inside the inferno with the water hose. The air was thick with black smoke from a burning baby mattress. Someone stumbled into her. Then she heard the base of her mask hiss. She tried to take a breath, but no air came, and she started to suffocate. Wilson ripped off her mask and inhaled syrupy smoke. Then she broke the cardinal rule: she handed the nozzle off and abandoned her partner.
Outside the burning house, Wilson fell to her knees. Thick strands of black snot spewed from her nose as she hacked her lungs clear. Through her reddened, half-blinded eyes, she saw the engine driver standing over her, cursing. After the blaze was contained, the other firefighters circled her, yelling, “Women don’t belong here! You should have taken care of your equipment!”
“I know I checked every little thing. I had been sabotaged,” Wilson says. Afterward, she was out two weeks with pneumonia. But she never said a word. “It was me against this crew of men. I knew I wasn’t going to win.”
Since Wilson joined the ranks more than three decades ago, Dallas Fire-Rescue hasn’t changed as much as one might expect. Today about 1,700 uniformed troops (plus a couple hundred civilians) in one of the largest fire departments in the country respond to more than 500 calls a day. Well over 100 in the ranks today were hired before women were allowed to join, and there are a dozen who have been on since the ’60s. Minorities are underrepresented, especially Hispanics and Latinos, who account for just 15 percent of the uniformed ranks despite constituting 36 percent of Dallas’ population. But women fare the worst. Less than 6 percent of uniformed fire personnel are female. By comparison, about 17 percent of Dallas police officers are women.
Chief Burns made history as the department’s first black chief in 2006, but he landed in a deeply divided department. Each of the major ethnic groups has its own fire association, and their leaders were hardly speaking. In 2005, the department was shaken by a cheating scandal, when the current president of the Dallas Black Fire Fighters Association, James Hunter, was suspended for three days without pay and booted from his post as an academy instructor under allegations that he fed black recruits exam answers during a private study session at his home. (Hunter, as well as his counterparts at the other two fire associations, would not comment for this story.)
Soon after Chief Burns took over, outside consultants released an efficiency study of the department. The study found that response times were generally good, but “undercurrents of racism and sexism are prevalent” and “attitudes ranging from antipathy to hostility with regard to female employees are barely disguised in some areas (especially fire suppression).” The Berkshire study found that all racial groups felt resentful, and 44 percent of women surveyed did not think they were treated with as much respect as their colleagues. The consultants cautioned in their 2007 report that “given the unique environment in which fire and EMS professionals operate—they essentially live together when on duty—addressing these tensions is extremely important.”
Now the department expects to lose some 60 percent of its force to retirement or attrition by 2012. But with a new, rigorous agility test (replacing one that Rosie O’Donnell could ace, firefighters had complained), the percentage of women among the uniformed ranks hired under Chief Burns’ watch has fallen to 4 percent, according to a roster released to D Magazine.
These problems are not unique to Dallas. A 2008 study partially funded by the Ford Foundation titled “A National Report Card on Women in Firefighting” found that women comprise just 3.7 percent of the force on average, up from approximately zero percent in 1980—far lower than the 184 other dirty and dangerous occupations studied, including bus mechanics, soldiers, road crews, loggers, garbage collectors, roofers, and septic tank servicers, where women averaged 17 percent of the workforce. Decades of all-male staffing had allowed an Animal House atmosphere to take root in many firehouses, the researchers found, where sexually oriented conversation, pornography, and homophobia were common, and women reported being subjected to “pranks” that included putting human feces in boots and cutting off their water supply at fires. Some also reported a male expectation that women would date their fellow firefighters and stations where until recently the only women around had serviced on-duty male firefighters, which was so common that it had been nicknamed “getting laid and getting paid.” More than 80 percent of the women surveyed in fire departments nationwide reported they had been treated differently because of their gender, 51 percent had been shunned or isolated at work, almost 43 percent had been verbally harassed, and 6 percent had been assaulted—though most had not reported the incidents for fear of retaliation.
If senior fire managers don’t address these problems, they’ll be forced to by expensive and disruptive litigation, concluded Marc Bendick Jr., who co-authored the study. “Gender inclusion is the new standard to which departments are likely to be held by the courts, the elected officials to whom they report, and the citizens they serve,” he wrote.
Long before Chief Burns arrived in Dallas, fire department supervisors often looked the other way or covered up ugly incidents, according to D Magazine’s interviews with current and former firefighters and a review of disciplinary files. After Burns took control of the department, Siri and others allege, he continued the tradition, promoting commanders widely viewed as incompetent or perverted. Leanne Siri wondered: “I’m an executive woman. I dress professionally. I act professionally. I come in with the chief as a team. If people see this, and they are still brazen and bold enough to have said and done the things they did to me, as a top executive, think what’s happening in the firehouse.”
Exhibit A: Deputy Chief Bobby Ross. In her lawsuit, Siri accuses him of repeatedly trying to hug her after she asked him not to touch her. She also describes two incidents that other firefighters have verified: Ross allegedly took a liking to a rookie’s girlfriend and had his fire service driver take him to her house to proposition her; in another incident, he allegedly made a female rookie lie on the ground and roll an abs wheel back and forth, forcing her to thrust her buttocks into the air while he stood behind her and licked his lips and made dirty comments until she ran from the room in tears. The woman got her father, a lawyer, involved, but there is no mention of it in Ross’ personnel files, released to D Magazine under open records law.
Another item absent from his official disciplinary report is a complaint alleging that Chief Ross looked the other way while a veteran firefighter regularly had sex with his mistress while on duty, spending hours in the firehouse parking lot, in the backseat of her car. Other firefighters complained that they had to wait as long as five minutes when the bell hit for the guy to pull up his pants and get in the engine. “Their investigation consisted of ‘Did you do this?’ And he said no,” an officer with more than 20 years of experience says.
Chief Ross’ personnel file does mention that he was rebuked in 2002 for asking a firefighter sitting at the station’s kitchen table, “Where do you think your girlfriend is right now? Do you think she is faithful? I bet she is sucking a big c--k right now or riding one.” That firefighter also complained that Ross had tried to intimidate him by twice driving by his house unannounced, but the guy who spoke up was warned in a severely worded letter: “Members who make false and malicious allegations of workplace violence will be subject to disciplinary action.”
Promotions like Ross’ have cost Chief Burns the confidence of the troops in the field, the veteran officer says. “Your loyalty should be to the citizens of Dallas, not your buddies,” he says. “You know: protect and serve, all that good stuff.”
Next exhibit: Clyde B. Sherpell Jr. He had been warned repeatedly by his ambulance partner to stop hitting on patients they transported to the hospital. Sherpell was accused of sexual assault in 2006 for allegedly massaging a woman’s nipples and offering her $10 to perform oral sex on him en route to the hospital. The woman didn’t want to press charges, so the department treated it as a “he said, she said” matter. Sherpell was fired in 2008 only after he admitted he told another patient that the reason she couldn’t keep a man is because she didn’t swallow.
Then there’s Michael D. Howard. He had been in the department less than three years as a fire prevention officer when commanders received two complaints about him in August 2008, one from a civilian and another indicating he had been stalking his female co-workers. According to Howard’s disciplinary records, he was inspecting a woman’s apartment when he began flirting with her. He later returned to her apartment in uniform and, after a few pleasantries, asked, “When are we going to do something?” By “something,” he explained, he meant rub her down with baby oil and have sex, according to the woman’s account. When she told him he had the wrong idea, he said, “Whatever. I don’t need some ghetto bitch. I was just trying to help you out, but you can’t get nothing without giving something.”
That incident could not be proven. However, investigators eventually discovered that Howard had asked out at least five of the women he worked with. “He hits on us,” they reported, but they didn’t want Howard to “get mad at them” so they asked a supervisor not to pursue the matter.
The firewoman who eventually made an official complaint about Howard said he repeatedly called her personal cellphone to ask her out, even after she told him to stop. More than once during field training, he reached back to her in the fire engine to touch her leg or her knee. Afterward he kept at it, sending her text messages saying “hey sexy,” creeping up behind her as she stood in parade stance to run a finger down her forearm. Howard refuted the allegations but was reprimanded for sexual harassment in January after a months-long investigation. What’s remarkable about his case is that the woman endured his unwanted advances for nine months before she turned to internal affairs.
Making a complaint through official channels in the fire department is useless or worse, according to Helen Watts, a firefighter who sued last year, alleging sexual harassment. Watts says she tried to tune out Lingburge Williams, a popular former president of the black firefighters union she worked with after transferring to dispatch in 2004. “He was beyond vulgar,” she says. Williams frequently gave detailed accounts of his sexual accomplishments and described how he liked to suck on women’s toes, Watts says. (Williams declined to comment. Another female firefighter who works with him said she is not bothered by the way Williams talks and considers him a big, harmless teddy bear.)
What disturbed Watts most was the message Williams left her saying, “I know you have a thing for me.” She had never given him any reason to think she wanted to date him, Watts says. Later, when Williams cornered her coming out of the restroom at a party at the Black Fire Fighters Association headquarters, Watts told him off, she says.
It might have ended there but for a late-night incident at the dispatch center. Williams was flipping through the channels on the TV at about 3 a.m. while on a graveyard shift when he stopped on The Entity, the ’80s movie about a woman raped by a ghost. When Watts suggested he should change the channel, he came unglued, she says. “He started screaming at me, saying there’s nothing wrong with this effing movie, you need to get an effing life, and on and on.” At the end of Watts’ shift, Williams was waiting for her in the parking garage under City Hall, she says. She saw him and ducked into a restroom, but after five minutes she came out, and he was still there. Watts tried to reason with him, saying, “What if the movie was Mississippi Burning?” Finally, she walked away as Williams raged: “This isn’t about a movie! This is personal!”
Watts is a no-nonsense blonde with blue eyes. But her best friend is a black woman, and Watts herself is a member of the black firefighters’ association. She asked a former union president to intervene, but it didn’t help. “Going through the formal complaint process is very painful, and most of the time there is no result,” she says.
When Watts did complain to an officer she trusted, Williams countered with a complaint of racial discrimination. Today Watts is still waiting for the department to open a formal investigation, almost two years after she submitted her written complaint. Watts reported her grievances to state and federal workforce commissions in May and sued in September 2008. Trial is set for February 2010. “No one should have turned on a rape movie,” she says. “No one should be talking about their genitals and sex positions at work. All they had to do was the right thing: tell someone to stop. It’s that simple.”
Poring over personnel files, reading complaint after complaint against men in Dallas Fire-Rescue can desensitize you to the details. Maybe that’s how Chief Eddie Burns feels. But in almost every case the women made their official complaints with extreme reluctance because “the fire department’s internal complaint system was ineffective,” says attorney Aaron Ramirez, summarizing what he considers to be the root of the problem for all six of his Dallas Fire-Rescue clients.
That is certainly true of Sherrie Lopez. The fire service is often called a family, and sometimes that is literally true. Dallas has fourth-generation firefighters in its ranks. Lopez, a 47-year-old firefighter with 17 years of experience, is married to a retired firefighter and her stepson is on the force, too. She used to hang out at her local Dallas station as a kid and watch the firemen suit up and race off in the engine. She joined after a stint in the Army but found the fire service to be tougher on women than the military.
“You know you’re always going to have to work harder to prove yourself,” Lopez says. “There’s a lot of good people out there who will take you under their wing. But there’s a lot of guys who want to see the women fail.”
On the one hand, when she was pregnant the crew at her fire station wanted to throw her a baby shower. On the other, the battalion chief, who had once called her a fat ass, nixed the party, she says. A certain amount of horsing around or “agitation” is tolerated or even encouraged in the fire service. When Lopez transferred to a new fire station in 1998, it started as harmless water fights. Then the guys started leaving her artful arrangements of vegetables in the fire station kitchen, a couple of potatoes nestled alongside a zucchini.
It deteriorated from there.
Her covers were thrown on the floor so many times that she stopped making her bed. Someone melted a lamp clear through her clock radio. The wooden bench her late father-in-law made her was smashed to pieces. Water was mixed into her vehicle’s fuel tank, damaging the engine. In March 2007, she was cleaning her personal area in the fire station when she noticed two large stains on her rug. She held it up and sniffed—urine.
Lopez complained to her superiors and eventually to internal affairs. The only thing that seemed to get their attention was when she went through her time cards and showed them that she went from driving the engine about half the time to less than 1 percent of the time after a new lieutenant came on. Eventually Lopez began spending much of her time alone in the firehouse, reading.
“We can be friends, but we’re never going to be bubba,” she says. Even then, she refused to quit. “It’s like being a battered wife. You love the job, you love what you do, and no matter what happens, no matter how bad it gets, you’re not going.”
In September 2008, she filed her workforce complaint, alleging that the fire department promoted its black employees but unfairly treated females in everything from pay to promotions. “I became the troublemaker,” Lopez says, covering her ears and eyes, because down at the fire stations, it’s see no evil, hear no evil. “I’m not a big women’s libber,” she adds in her Southern drawl. “I just wanted to be treated fairly. You think those people care who pulls them out of the fire, whether it’s a man or a woman?”
And, finally, there is the case of Cheryl Hill. She was an accounts payable worker in the warehouse area and had worked for the City of Dallas for 17 years. Hill says she looked into her coffee cup in March 2008 and realized what the white substance was that had been splattered in her office once before. She ran to the bathroom and vomited, and then she brought her coffee cup to her manager. “Look what’s in my cup,” she said. Testing later confirmed it was semen.
Hill asked her manager to change the locks on her office door, and he did. But he didn’t think the matter important enough to report to internal affairs—or even to have her office cleaned, she says. Hill had to get out the paper towels and soap and scrub the semen off her own keyboard.
Hill’s husband sent her to the doctor with the cup in a plastic bag, and the doctor sent Hill to the police. The police handed her back to the fire department without opening a criminal investigation, though the incident should have been treated as an assault, says Hill’s attorney, Aaron Ramirez. For the next four months, while the fire department interviewed everyone who worked in the warehouse, Hill wondered if a rapist or psychopath was on the loose.
Turns out it was the mechanic who used to have her office. After a stint on paid leave, he quit. Hill, who had been suffering from anxiety and nightmares, filed her workforce complaint this May and retired the next month. They don’t care about the victim, Hill says. “They just want to keep you quiet.”
Even when the department pursued one highly publicized case of sexual harassment, its tendency toward secrecy proved punishing. Assistant Chief Roland Gamez was fired in 2006 after the department learned he had been massaging necks, pecking cheeks, and squeezing knees of his subordinates in the 911 call center. More than a dozen had complained, including a man who said Gamez told him he could kiss him on the lips. But Gamez sued for wrongful termination and settled the case for $1.55 million after the judge harshly rebuked the city and fire department staff for hiding and destroying records related to the case.
Mike Fetzer, district director of the Dallas EEOC office, says federal workforce commission complaints are confidential and he can’t speak about specific municipalities or agencies, but “fire departments historically have had issues. It is an area where some developments came slowly. Some have enlightened managers who just won’t tolerate harassment or discrimination, and that was true in places 20 years ago and true today. But some still don’t get it.
“In almost all of the cases, because of the intimate environment, management either knew about it or should have. And good managers do something about it,” Fetzer says. Agency leaders often have their eye on the bottom line when it comes to lawsuits, but discrimination complaints are much more costly than lawyers and settlement fees, in his estimation. Fetzer says, “The real cost to the city is the efficiency of the department and whether people want to work there.”
Siri’s lawsuit was a must-read among the rank and file. “We’re hoping her lawsuit is going to clean house, for the chief and all his subordinates. Hell, I’ll pack his bags for him,” one firefighter says.
Some firefighters have started making bets on how long Chief Burns will last. But Leanne Siri fell first.
She says she asked twice to be transferred out of the fire department, in December 2008 and again the next month. Then she sent her letter of charges, marking it confidential, but city attorneys distributed the information to everyone mentioned in the letter, many of whom carry guns. “It’s a situation that is prone to retaliation. They had no regard for that or her safety,” says Amy Davis, her lawyer.
In late March, Siri and Davis met with city and fire leaders to discuss her complaints, but Siri says the city response amounted to little more than “Did you expect us to come in and hand you a $6 million check?” Only after the television news picked up the story did the city hire an independent investigator to look into her claims, she says. The city petitioned the state attorney general’s office to withhold portions of that investigator’s report from D Magazine, and the AG had not reached a decision as of press time, in late September.
Meanwhile, even as Dallas Fire-Rescue officers were arguing that Siri’s complaints were baseless, they were scrubbing the stations of every last Playboy. They built partitions to give female firefighters privacy when they slept. And “The Porn Squad” warned firefighters to rid their stations of all R-rated films that might feature nudity. Lockers, vehicles, computers—it was all inspected.
In August, John Cook, the department’s 801, or No. 2 chief, quit after a little more than a year with the department to semiretire at age 59. Cook was another outsider with stellar credentials, a published author with 40 years of experience who taught at the National Fire Academy. But Cook says he stepped down from his post prematurely because of differences of opinion with Chief Burns over the direction of the department.
“Some of our leadership is more interested in bells and whistles than basic services,” Cook says. In his view, the rift between the current administration and the rank and file has grown so wide that the department is paralyzed. “There is such a huge division that I’m not sure it can be repaired,” he says.
“I don’t think I have ever seen the morale as low as it’s been right now,” says another officer who still works for Dallas Fire-Rescue. Siri’s lawsuit was a must-read among the rank and file, another noted. “We’re hoping her lawsuit is going to clean house, for the chief and all his subordinates. Hell, I’ll pack his bags for him,” the firefighter says.
Siri thought the city might dispatch her quietly, along with the masses of other employees who were laid off in August in an attempt to balance the city’s budget. Instead, the city waited two more working days to fire her. When she was finally summoned by First Assistant City Manager Ryan Evans, he told her they had lost confidence in her ability to perform her job effectively.
Siri had long since cleared her office of personal items, including her plants and the photo of her son whose car crash had pushed her into the arms of the Dallas fire department. When the moment came, Siri had only to grab her purse and follow the two security guards who marched her through City Hall and down to the underground parking garage.
Now Siri isn’t as blonde as she used to be. She’s taking medication and seeing counselors, she says. Her court battle has just begun. Despite all she’s gone through, or perhaps because of it, she tears up when I mention the heroics of New York City firefighters on 9/11, when I saw men—and it was only soot-stained faces of men I saw—digging through the mound of smoldering rubble all night, refusing to stop the search for their brothers in uniform who had rushed into the falling towers.
Even though she’d been fired, Siri pulled herself together in late August to give a previously scheduled talk at the International Association of Fire Chiefs convention, which was held in Dallas. The title of her presentation: “Leading Women in the Fire Service.” Siri compared the fire service to a gang, a subculture with its own norms that survives on loyalty in life-or-death situations. “You’re in a family like the mafioso, where no one tattles,” she said.
As the saying goes, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. “When it comes to the fire service,” Siri says, “if you hear about a little, then you can be sure a lot is going on.”
Gretel C. Kovach is a contributing editor to D Magazine.