'It's not acceptable': Vancouver fire chief addresses workplace bullying, harassment allegations
VANCOUVER -- Vancouver’s fire chief is pledging to hold his staff accountable for their behaviour in the workplace after allegations of harassment, bullying and sexism came to light from former and current firefighters, and documented in an internal memo obtained by CTV News.
Chief Darrell Reid acknowledges there are some workplace issues at the Vancouver Fire Rescue Service, but insists it's a "few people" in an organization of nearly 1,000 members.
"It's not acceptable for people to behave that way, and if they're going to behave that way then they're not welcome as part of this organization," Reid added.
A firefighter who quit the force last year says in her seven years at VFRS, she witnessed "bullying, harassment, sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, gaslighting, victim blaming/shaming, gear tampering, inadequate facilities for women, inadequate protective equipment for women and extreme levels of toxic masculinity."
A current firefighter describes bullying and intimidation as not uncommon and says employees have little recourse.
An internal memo sent by the chief to staff on Oct. 24 begins with praise for members’ hard work and “high performance milestones in many areas” in the two years he’s been in charge. Howeverm the memo goes on to say: “Recent and ridiculous actions targeting specific specialty teams, various actions that have hurt individuals of many stripes and orientations and colours and backgrounds, have also come to light."
In a sit-down interview with CTV News, Reid said "I can't say that we are always perfect or that we have always been perfect. I can reiterate that we are getting so much better and I've never been in a culture -- as critical as one wants to be of a culture -- I've never worked in a place where people have been so open with leadership and willing to change and do hard things and work together."
He also pointed to a recent survey that 80 per cent of staff took part in, giving a 97 per cent favourable response when asked for trust and confidence in the chief and a 93 per cent score when asked about trust and confidence in respondents’ immediate managers. Reid says VFRS has also just won an international award for staff engagement.
A 'toxic' workplace?
The former firefighter tells CTV News she didn’t trust her team would watch out for her, describing one occasion when her custom-fitted ventilator mask was hoisted high on some rafters – forcing to her to scramble for a ladder to untie it before a call came. She said she worried she'd be left behind or humiliated at the scene of a fire if she didn't have the mask.
Another firefighter describes a tradition where a team member will present coworkers with a pie if they have to work with an unpopular employee, which the chief references in his memo.
“How would you feel if you were on the pie list?” he writes. “It would be humiliating for me to describe to the media, or to council or to another fire chief, or to my kids.”
When asked about that particular practice, Reid said it's an ill-considered attempt at humour.
"Like many things, it's something people would do because they think they're being funny and most people when it happens in the culture tend to think it's funny as well," he said.
"I have not personally had a conversation with a person who was offended by it, but I can guess it could hurt feelings and make people feel offended and that's why I referenced it in that letter."
Reid acknowledges the impact of some members' behaviour in the memo, writing: "What do I know? I know that some members of our department feel isolated, even betrayed. There are too many examples I have heard directly from the recent past and they touch all kinds of individuals. Personally, I feel like I haven't done enough to stop it."
But when it comes to disciplining those the chief describes as “feeling fearless when doing things that are not right,” he says no one has been disciplined since the memo was distributed.
VFRS staff are part of a union and Reid says there is due process to follow, though he’d like anyone witnessing bullying or harassing behaviour to speak up against it in the moment; he wants to hear from people directly if they feel their supervisor isn’t addressing issues.
"Like any big organization we're not perfect and I'm actually saddened that people haven't reached out to me in some cases and have gone elsewhere because I have some confidence that the resources and capabilities we have to help people have gotten really, really good," said Reid, noting the department has 19 different programs and initiatives to support the mental health of employees.
The former firefighter who left last year says she found little help from the union or any other channels she tried.
"The work environment was so terrible, that I contemplated taking my own life," she said.
"I decided to quit instead."
Do you have a story to tell? CTV News Vancouver wants to hear from current and former firefighters who’ve experienced the kind of issues described in this story. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article is part one in a three-part series. Read part two on radical changes made to Richmond's fire department.
Read the third part of this series on female firefighters in Metro Vancouver.