In addition to the dangers they face in their work, some female firefighters in Boston say they now fear another hazard: retaliation from their colleagues.
Three female firefighters in Boston’s fire department — Nathalie Fontanez, Yvette Ram and Julia Rodriguez — went public with complaints of unfair treatment last year, describing a work environment in which women are harassed, discriminated against and, in at least one case, sexually assaulted. The review prompted the city to retain outside counsel to conduct an investigation, resulting in a 148-page report issued in early January.
Among other findings, the report said that many male firefighters don’t see a problem with so-called “locker room talk,” which is often seen as disrespectful to women.
Both Ram and Fontanez, who are on leave, expressed concern for their safety when they are back on the job.
“Your fear is not the fire,” Fontanez told WGBH News in her first media interview on this topic. “Your fear is how your colleagues are going to support you ... because of something outside, not related to the fire ground.”
Ram said she has dealt with disrespectful behavior for years.
“The environment and the atmosphere is that you don’t speak about it,” Ram said. “If you speak about it, you are ostracized. Your safety is put in jeopardy.”
All three women are represented by counsel and declined to give many specifics about their experiences with sexism in the department.
Boston Mayor Marty Walsh has promised to change the department's culture. Walsh told WGBH News that he won’t tolerate retaliation against the women who have brought their concerns to light.
Walsh also said he will follow the report’s recommendation to file legislation to establish a cadet program, aimed at increasing the number of women and people of color in the department. And, Walsh promised to hold Boston Fire Commissioner Joseph Finn and the department's other leaders responsible for increasing diversity within the department. Finn declined a request for an interview.
But Rodriguez said she wants more than a promise. She wants new leadership.
“I don’t think [change is] going to come from, unfortunately, the administration that’s there,” Rodriguez said. “I don’t see how it could. … All your life this is the thought that you’ve had. Because some report came out, the light bulb isn’t going to go off.”
Of the approximately 1,500 firefighters in the department, 1,100 are white men, and slightly more than 400 are people of color. There are 17 women on the job.
The department's newest class, composed of 54 recruits, was sworn in on January 2. More than one-third are people of color, and the sole woman is the department's first Asian-American female firefighter.
Nationally, about 4 percent of firefighters are women, compared to 1 percent in Boston.
Rodriguez said women can do the job and just need the opportunity.
“Women can hold their own in Boston fire,” Rodriguez said. “We have done this entire job with boots that are too big for us, clothing that don’t fit us and gear that is missing.”
Together, Fontanez, Ram and Rodriguez have served more than 50 years as Boston firefighters. Rodriguez has been a firefighter with the department for 30 years.
The Boston Society of Vulcans, a group for minority firefighters, has pushed for a cadet program for years. The Boston Police Department has one, as do the fire departments in New York and Connecticut.
“I was encouraged to hear that the cadet program was being proposed,” said Darrell Higginbottom, Boston fire captain and president of the Boston Society of Vulcans. “But I also feel like it needs to go a lot further than a proposal.”
The proposal requires the legislature's approval, because a cadet program would work around state civil service rules that give preference to veterans and disabled applicants, limiting openings for women and candidates of color.
Along with the cadet program, Walsh has agreed to implement the other recommendations from the report, including anti-discrimination training.
Fontanez said she will be watching.
“I put it in their hands to do the right thing,” Fontanez said, “as if their daughters, mothers, sisters, aunts were on the job.”