Above: The Mt. Taylor Hotshots on the Shep Canyon Fire in South Dakota, 2011.
(Originally published December 27, 2017)
An article in the Los Angeles Times by Melissa Etehad describes how wildland firefighting gear designed for men can be a problem for female firefighters.
Below are some excerpts:
“Kelley Whitelens hiked a steep hill toward the backyard of a home on Coyote Road in Santa Barbara, one hand wiping the sweat from her face, the other pulling up her sagging pants.
“Whitelens is the only female firefighter in a 19-person team from South Dakota fighting the fierce Thomas fire…
“For the last six months, Hannah Key, a firefighter with the Sierra National Forest and a fire captain on the Thomas fire, has gathered hundreds of surveys from female firefighters across the nation about their body measurements, firefighter gear and improvements they hope to see.
“Her efforts stemmed from an email she sent during the Cascade fire in the spring of 2016 complaining about the lack of fire gear made for women. “Within the hour, I had three people from the company on the phone with me telling me that they’d like to make equipment for women,” Key said.
“Since then, Key has been gathering testimonials from female firefighters in California, Oregon, Texas, Florida and other states, gauging their needs and issues they’ve encountered in the field.
“The response has been overwhelming,” Key said. “There’s a market for this.”
Above: the USFS engine crew at Descanso, California in 1990. In the front row, L to R., Bequi Livingston, Maureen, Chris Anderson, Bill Gabbert.
Today I ran across an article that initially got my attention because it mentioned a firefighter I worked with who had an unusual name: Bequi Livingston. I worked with Bequi in 1990 on the U.S. Forest Service engine crew at Descanso, California. Already having a great deal of experience, she came to that position through the apprenticeship program, a way to get her permanent appointment, and it was obvious that she was destined for something greater.
The article below, reprinted with permission, was written by Zöe Rom for the December 20, 2017 edition of REI Co-op Journal.
Bequi Livingston is an old-school badass. She spent her career fighting fires alongside the most respected crews in the West. Today, she’s dedicated to training more women in backcountry firefighting.
She began working with the U.S. Forest Service in 1979 in New Mexico’s Smokey Bear Ranger District. After serving on the Young Adult Conservation Corps, she became a seasonal firefighter, eventually working her way up through fire engines, helitack crews, hotshot crews, fire prevention and fire lookout. Livingston went on to become an assistant fire management officer and later, a prescribed fire operations specialist. She was one of the first women to ever serve on the Sandia Helitack crew, and one of the first two women to ever serve on the prestigious Smokey Bear Hotshot Crew. In 2008, Livingston earned the Paul Gleason Award for her service in the wildland firefighting community.
After retiring, she started the Women In Wildland Fire Boot Camp in 2004, a program still running today in the USFS Southwestern Region (and modeled by other agencies throughout the West) to recruit and train women for success as backcountry firefighters.
She lives in Albuquerque with her husband, competes with the New Mexico Track Club and recently qualified for the National Senior Olympic Games.
Did you dream of being a backcountry firefighter when you were a little girl?
I was lucky to spend all my childhood summers at a remote family cabin in New Mexico where I learned to love nature and the woods. I loved to hike and fish and just spend time in nature. I was also an elite athlete and loved outdoor physical activities. When I was a senior in high school (in El Paso, Texas), I knew that I wanted to be a firefighter but only knew about the city structural firefighters and didn’t even know that wildland firefighters existed.
The vice principal at school would do everything to talk me out of it, saying you are too small, you’re a woman in a men’s profession and it’s too dangerous. He even lent me library books about catastrophic firefighting events. It only fueled my interest more. Then I went to college on an athletic scholarship, and my boyfriend worked as a wildland firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service. That’s the first I even knew about the job. That really sparked my interest because he loved it so much.
What is the job actually like? Can you describe a typical day (if such a thing exists)?
Although wildland firefighting has changed a lot, one typical day on a large fire with a crew would be like this: Wake up about 4am to get dressed and eat chow before attending briefing for the day’s assignment. Depending on the assignment that day for your crew, you will be transported (bus, van, helicopter or walking) to your division with specific instructions for your crew’s 12-hour shift. Duties vary according to the fire’s progression and objectives and, of course, safety. You are typically working with a variety of other fire crews and resources which are very specific and tactical in nature. Most often, you will take a short lunch break at some point and continue working, depending on the current situation as it continually changes. If all goes well during the work shift, you will typically leave the fireline in order to complete your shift by 6pm. Then, you head back to fire camp, eat dinner, shower if showers are available, have a little down time and bed down in your crew tents. But it all depends, and it can all change in the blink of an eye.
What’s it like being a woman in this male-dominated field?
Congressional and Inspector General investigations into allegations of sexual harassment of federal firefighters are becoming frequent. After two hearings before the Full House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform about sexual misconduct in the National Park Service, a number of employees of the U.S. Forest Service came forward with similar stories.
On December 1 the committee held another hearing “to address misconduct, sexual harassment, and disparate treatment of women within the U.S. Forest Service”, and, “to examine the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s management of its Office of Civil Rights and handling of Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) complaints.”
One of the witnesses to testify was Denice Rice, a Fire Prevention Technician on the Eldorado National Forest at El Dorado, California.
She told a horrifying story of being harassed for years by her supervisor and then being victimized again with reprisals. Here are some excerpts from her written testimony:
…From 2009 through 2011 my second line supervisor repeatedly sexually harassed me and he assaulted me in 2011. I filed a complaint and the instant I filed everything changed. Management removed all of my supervisory responsibilities, moved me from my location, and isolated me. This adverse action resulted in a prohibited personnel practice when they removed my supervisory responsibilities that were in my position description.
Numerous investigations were held. There was an OIG investigation, with interviews from multiple investigators and I had to relive the situation over and over. One of the investigators provided specific details to my peers on what the second line supervisor did to me, including sexual assault. I lost my reputation and my dignity when they made the situation public. My family life was affected. My husband felt helpless because he wasn’t allowed to protect me. My life was a living hell. I was diagnosed with PTSD.
After the OIG investigation and the Rangers read everything in the report, again violating my confidentiality, the decision was made to terminate him. But before they gave him the proposed removal letter, the Forest Supervisor took him out for coffee to give him advance notice that he was going to be fired. They let him quickly retire with no mark on his record whatsoever.
After his retirement he applied for and was hired on a California Incident Management Team. This put me in a situation where we could both be assigned to the same fire incident. It also allowed him to continue working with women.
In 2016 the fire organization brought this predator back to the Eldorado forest specifically to give a motivational speech to the Hotshots. So they are still supporting him while I have continued to be harassed by the same individuals that protected him before he left. I have had to file additional reprisal complaints.
The video of the hearing is below. It starts at about 8:30.
(UPDATE at 5:20 p.m. MDT September 29, 2016)
At about 7 p.m. on September 28 Don Neubacher, the Superintendent at Yosemite National Park in California, sent an email message to all employees in the park announcing his retirement. He explained that in a discussion with the Regional Director “it was determined that new leadership was needed” in the park. He said he was offered a position in Denver serving as a “Senior Advisor to Michael Reynolds, Deputy Director for the National Park Service”, but that since his home was in California he opted to retire. He will be on leave until the retirement is effective on November 1, 2016.
During the September 22 Congressional hearing described below it was revealed that 20 employees in Yosemite described the park as a hostile work environment as a result of the behavior and conduct of the park Superintendent.
(Originally published at 5:24 p.m. MDT, September 22, 2016)
Thursday’s hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform was at times captivating. During the 2 hours and 17 minute hearing two current National Park Service employees testified as “whistleblowers”, possibly putting their careers in jeopardy and risking retaliation as they described allegations of sexual harassment and a lack of accountability.
The statements and questions from the committee members exhibited very little partisanship. Many of them seemed genuinely shocked and deeply troubled at the numerous examples of sexual harassment that came to light during the session. They frequently thanked the two NPS employees for coming forward and vowed that the committee would be watching closely for any retribution against the whistleblowers.
Four National Park Service units were discussed in regards to sexual harassment incidents: Yellowstone National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, Yosemite National Park, and Cape Canaveral National Seashore.
Kelly Martin, Yosemite National Park’s Chief of Fire and Aviation Management, has had a 32-year career with the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service. For the last 10 years she has served as the Chief of Fire and Aviation Management in the park. She described “..a hostile work environment in Yosemite where dozens of individuals have come forward with personal statements of demoralizing behavior to include acts of bullying, gender bias, and favoritism.”
Ms. Martin was asked to describe three of her experiences with sexual harassment that occurred before she worked at Yosemite.
I was a victim of a peeping tom at the Grand Canyon in 1987. It was a very difficult and painful experience for me. I reported it to two supervisors immediately that first day that I was able to positively identify a park ranger in uniform that was peering through my bathroom window. I had reported it to two supervisors. Visibly shaken, it was very, very difficult for me to do.
She said she was presented with options: do nothing, file a criminal complaint, file an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint, or agree to a meeting with the two supervisors and the Park Ranger. She chose the meeting. She said she didn’t want to be labeled a troublemaker. The Park Ranger continued his career and recently retired as a Deputy Superintendent at a park.
Representative Jason Chaffetx, Chair of the committee, added that the park ranger was arrested in 2000 for peeping at naked women at a YMCA. In 2001 he was investigated for suspicious behavior or voyeurism behavior near a building. He recently retired as a Deputy Park Superintendent.
In another incident at Grand Canyon National Park Ms. Martin said another employee took photos of her and put them above the visor in his vehicle and told others about the photo. In her office at the Grand Canyon he tried to kiss her, but she pushed him away. Later he applied for the job of Chief of Fire and Aviation at the Grand Canyon. She spoke to the Deputy Superintendent about this incident and that person was not selected for the job.
In a third situation that occurred at a meeting while working in fire management for the USFS, one of her supervisors ran his fingers through her hair. She talked to her immediate supervisor about it, but did not pursue it further, in order to preserve her career. When she reported it to upper management, she was told “It’s his word against yours”. This led her to believe, she said, “There was a culture of tolerance and acceptance of this kind of behavior in her work force… I honestly felt the preservation of my career and the status with my peers was more important than filing a complaint.”
Referring to an investigation of sexual harassment at Yosemite, Chairman Chaffetz said: “It is our understanding that of the 21 people the investigators interviewed, every single one of them, with one exception, described Yosemite as a hostile work environment as a result of the behavior and conduct of the park Superintendent.”
The person that did not agree with that assessment, Chairman Chaffetz said, was the Superintendent.