RICHMOND, B.C. -- There was a time when Richmond's fire department was mired in controversy after serious allegations of sexism and discrimination from women who walked off the job and even filed lawsuits, but now it's become an industry leader in diversifying its workforce and adopting a ground-breaking approach to identifying top firefighting talent.

In 2007 a report by veteran mediator, Vince Ready, outlined a work culture "characterized by juvenile and hostile behaviour," with women bearing the brunt. The report outlined a series of recommendations to improve the workplace environment, including providing separate washrooms for women.

Since then, Richmond Fire Rescue has radically changed its hiring practices, with 17 per cent of new hires being women since 2007, in addition to 27 per cent visible minorities.

Regionally, roughly three per cent of uniformed firefighters are women and few departments keep statistics on the number of non-white members.

"It's very important to accept people as they are, that was the biggest part," Chief Tim Wilkinson said about the changes to the department. 

"We needed to create that safe environment for people to come. After that we looked at reducing barriers for people to come to our door, and some of those were barriers were coming from our fire academies; they are not graduating a very diverse workforce."

Wilkinson was the president of the firefighters' union, which brought forward the female firefighters' complaints, and says meaningful change had to come in a change of attitude and perception of what makes a good firefighter.

The department still has a rigorous physical test, but unlike other communities it doesn't require a diploma or certificate from a fire college, like the Justice Institute. Instead, Wilkinson says applicants who pass the physical test and have a valid driver's licence are subjected to a series of interviews to determine if they have the right mindset and qualities to be a firefighter.

"What we've done is decided we will train people to the level we need them and we're going to hire people for the attributes of a firefighter," Wilkinson said. "Do they have the ability to learn? Do they have the ability to troubleshoot? Do they have the ability to value diversity? It's behaviours that make great firefighters, not physical attributes."

CTV News has spoken with several senior fire officials throughout the region and they have all emphasized that while performing the physical requirements of the job are important, modern firefighting also requires a calm and analytical approach to emergency situations, hazards and the many diverse scenarios they find themselves in.

Structure fires account for roughly one third of their calls, while medical emergencies, rescues and car crashes account for the majority of incidents firefighters attend in the Lower Mainland.

Historic Complaints

In 2005, the firefighters' union filed a grievance with Jeanette Moznik making explosive allegations, which she put to paper in a writ filed in B.C. Supreme Court. 

Moznik said that over the course of several years, the city of Richmond "allowed the fire service to foster a culture of systemic discrimination and harassment of its female firefighters."

She alleged that not only was pornography displayed around her, but that her locker was tagged with a gender-specific expletive and that a condom with unknown liquid placed inside. Moznik claimed that human feces were placed in her boots and that her water pressure was turned off during a fire.

The judge dismissed her lawsuit as being filed in the wrong forum, in 2006, describing it as an employment dispute best dealt with under the union's grievance process.

Earlier that year, all four women on the job walked away from their jobs citing workplace harassment.

"There just came a time when I drew the line," Karen White told CTV at the time, alleging that her gear had been tampered with and that she'd been personally threatened. 

"I was definitely harassed and I was an observer of some pretty horrendous harassment as well," she'd said.

Ready's report came in 2007, finding that when the women had complained, "in many instances this conduct was condoned by the employer or addressed in a half-hearted fashion."

A new path forward

When asked about the dark chapter in his department's history, Wilkinson insists there's zero tolerance for discrimination of any kind. He credits a mix of education and disciplinary action for the changes in atmosphere and attitude in his fire halls.

"We just don't accept people being mistreated," Wilkinson said. "It is set out day one that that's our expectation and it is regularly updated."

Now that there are more women and visible minorities in the ranks, Wilkinson believes it's becoming easier for people of all backgrounds to consider a career in the fire service.

"People need to know they will be accepted and the only way they know they will be accepted is to see someone just like them." 

This article is part two in a three-part series. Read the first part on allegations of a toxic culture within the Vancouver fire department.

Read the third part of this series on female firefighters in Metro Vancouver.