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OpEd: Sexist firefighters undermine a heroic profession

Hail to the (fire) chief for his bold, decisive action in terminating sexist firefighters.
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Karen Green, September 18, 2013 3:05:50 PM

Firefighters: brave, strong, heroic … and willing to slap a woman to change her behaviour.

At least, that’s what one firefighter boldly declared in an unfortunate online conversation with a friend.

And in an equally bold move, that Toronto firefighter, along with two others, have been fired after an investigation into the derogatory remarks they made on the social media platform, Twitter.

Their actions, said fire chief Jim Sales, were not acceptable for city employees, and were in fact in direct violation of the social media policies set out for public servants.

It might seem harsh to terminate the men for their online indiscretions, but the things the firefighters tweeted were well-deserving of their dismissal.

Firefighter Lawaun Edwards wondered of a woman whose actions he deemed inappropriate in a coffee line up, “Would swat her in the back of the head been considered abuse or a way to reset the brain?” [sic]

Edwards has since password-protected his twitter account so the public can no longer view his musings on potentially abusing women.

Matt Bowman, whose twitter handle was @Hero_Matt, and whose photo showed him in his full firefighter’s gear, was fired for his fondness for quoting television shows. Among his tweets was a quote from The Office, “Reject a woman and she will never let it go. One of the many defects of their kind. Also weak arms,” as well as this gem from South Park: “I’d never let a woman kick my a–. If she tried something, I’d be like HEY! You get your b—-a– back in the kitchen and make me some pie!”

Very classy.

It is difficult to find fault with the people who run into burning buildings for a living, but their bravery on the job is no excuse for such offensive behaviour outside of the fire hall, and the fire chief should be applauded for his swift, decisive action.

Whether or not this will erode the public’s – and particularly women’s – trust in the fire department remains to be seen. But suggesting that a woman be, like, slapped into better behaviour surely erodes our respect. It also suggests a much deeper issue within the ranks of the industry.

Only 5% of Toronto firefighters are women, and we must wonder just how much of this is due to ingrained, systemic sexism like the sexism exhibited in Edwards’ and Bowman’s tweets. If the fire chief had allowed such behaviour to be tolerated in a public forum, one would have had to wonder how much worse attitudes towards women were behind the closed doors of the fire hall.

Whether the terminations were damage control or truly punitive, it seems the fire chief does not want us to wonder about such things. Not surprisingly, the firefighter’s association is rallying to get the men reinstated, insisting that they are outraged by the fire chief’s actions. But who do they want reinstated? The hero, or the chauvinist pig?

Like the brave firefighter that he is, Jim Sales should not back down. His decision says that the public demands better behaviour from its employees, and he does, too. Sales is not making an example out of these men, he is setting the standard.

A standard that we can only hope other public sectors will strive to reach.

Image credit: Thinkstock

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Karen Green

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