A group of female firefighters, including some of Fairfax County's highest-ranking women, sued the county yesterday, alleging a pattern of discrimination in hiring, promotion and housing in the fire department that has left them with "second-class status" compared with their male counterparts.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Alexandria by five firefighters and the Fairfax County Women Firefighters' Association, says facilities for women are so inferior that the women's shower in one firehouse is a converted urinal. Other female firefighters bunk in a converted closet that lacked heat for five years, the lawsuit states.
The plaintiffs said they are repeatedly subjected to sexually harassing comments and attitudes. In one incident, the suit alleges, a male firefighter slapped a female employee across the face with a piece of ham and made a sexually graphic remark.
"This is a question of saying, 'Look, you've got to do something about this,' " the plaintiffs' attorney, Victor M. Glasberg, said of the lawsuit. " 'Since you're not doing it because it's the right thing . . . you'll have to tell it to the judge.' "
To buttress their claims, the women quoted from a mandatory training manual for Fairfax County fire department officers, which states that men work more "unrelentingly" than women and take fewer breaks. It adds: "While most men identify strongly with their jobs, women tend to see themselves as complex and multifaceted."
"We absolutely love our jobs, and the majority of the people in the fire department are wonderful," one plaintiff, Capt. Kathleen Stanley, said in an interview. "It's just a small group of men that make it bad for all of us."
Dan Schmidt, a spokesman for the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department, would not address specifics of the lawsuit, which names three male department officers and volunteer fire departments in Annandale, Baileys Crossroads, Dunn Loring, Great Falls, Lorton and Vienna. Those departments are semi-autonomous, but they are run operationally by Fairfax County Fire and Rescue.
But Schmidt said the overall department is "committed to equal treatment and equal opportunity for all of its members without exception. Women are equal partners within the department and play key roles."
As more women became firefighters in the late 1980s, Schmidt said, the department created separate facilities for them but had to "carve them out of existing facilities." He said that the three newest stations, built in the past 10 years, have "separate and equal" accommodations for women and that women's facilities are being upgraded at other stations.
Overall, 115 of the department's 1,219 uniformed members, or 9.4 percent, are women, department statistics show. Nationally, about 7,000 of the nation's more than 1 million firefighters are women, according to 2000 statistics, the latest available, compiled by the National Fire Protection Association.
Although Schmidt said the department is "committed to hiring women," he acknowledged that "our challenge is to retain them."
Another plaintiff, Carolyn Ruwe, said the department makes it difficult for women to stay. She said she had to resign in 2003 after becoming pregnant because department officials ignored her repeated requests to develop a flexible schedule in which she wouldn't have to sometimes work 24 hours straight.
"You can't raise a family being gone for 24 hours," Ruwe said. "Many women are leaving because they have to choose, and that's terrible. We work our butts off to get this career. This was my dream job. . . . I cried the day I had to turn my gear in."
Other plaintiffs allege discrimination in promotions. Stanley said her promotion to captain was delayed by a supervisor who told her in recruit school that she wasn't "the right image for the fire department. He said that when he pictured a fireman, he pictured someone who can break down a door and go rescue people."
Even after she was promoted in 2003, Stanley said, the supervisor was still telling other department personnel in meetings that "he didn't think I could do the job. It was degrading, demoralizing. He never did that to any man, ever."
Plaintiff Jill Young said she was outraged several months ago when she heard a deputy chief, explaining the difficulty of solving a firefighting problem, say in a department-wide conference call: "It's like saying you used to beat your wife. There is no good answer."
"I flew out of my chair," said Young, president of the women's firefighters association. "That's the mentality of the men in this department. They just don't understand."
The plaintiffs emphasized that they are not seeking special treatment for women, only equal treatment; nor do they want to lower fire department entrance standards. The lawsuit seeks unspecified monetary damages and an injunction requiring equal facilities for women.