Eight-year Houston Fire Department veteran Paula Keyes, left, and nine-year veteran Jane Draycott, right, were targeted this week by a hate campaign that would be cruel irrespective of its perpetrators, but is made even worse by the fact that it's their fellow firefighters, in whose hands they have to put their lives on the job, who orchestrated the harassment.
In their first comments about harassment that culminated in racist and sexist epithets scrawled across a door at Fire Station 54 at Bush Intercontinental Airport, Jane Draycott and Paula Keyes said they're devastated by the attacks and at a loss to understand them.In a video of their public statements, Draycott heartbreakingly reveals that someone had scrawled on her deceased daughter's face the word "dead" and on her face the word "die." The n-word was used against Keyes in the graffiti, which also called the women bitches. They are the only two women among 50 men assigned to Station 54 in Houston.
"It's demented," said Draycott, a 16-year veteran of Texas fire departments who came to work Tuesday to find not just the graffiti but the mutilation of a treasured photo of her and her teenage daughter who was killed in a 2006 car crash. "Someone is absolutely sick to do this. It's got to stop."
Keyes, who has been at Station 54 only three months, quite understandably wants to be transferred: "I'm risking my life to save other lives. I have to worry about my co-workers writing 'die' on my family's photos. I worked too hard to get where I am ... for them to drag me back down." She works a job where she has to put her life in the hands of quite possibly the same people sending her death threats; there's no way anyone could ever feel totally safe knowing that. "I never thought I'd have to be afraid of my own co-workers. I had their backs. I thought they had mine."
Draycott has been at Station 54 for two years and has made "frequent complaints about the abuse, but it never changed."
Draycott described the litany of incidents over the past two years: her shower’s cold water being disconnected so she was subsequently scalded; vandalism in the women's restroom that included urination on the toilet seats, sink and walls and snipping of wires to the speaker that alerts firefighters to emergency calls; and a colleague saying he didn't want to sit with "the riffraff" when declining to sit at her table.Also a totally understandable position. She's invested a lot of time and energy already in this fight and wants to see it through. If that's going to be possible, that is.
She also described superiors forcing her to take and score highly on exams after being off work for extended periods while her male coworkers who were off longer did not have to demonstrate such re-entry skills.
…Draycott said she feels like "a rubber band that's been wound too tight" because of the stress the past two years. But she also said she's intent on returning to her job at Station 54. "I'm not going to let them run me out of my station," vowed Draycott, the holder of a black belt in karate. "They're not going to succeed."
Right now, Keyes and Draycott are "not working while the matter is being investigated and are having to use vacation time," according to their attorney, who is working to get them paid leave. It's completely absurd they aren't on paid leave already; if he can't secure it, their vacation time will eventually run out and they'll be on unpaid leave or forced to go back on the job without their harassers having been identified.
Their targeting has left the Fire Department in turmoil, with Chief Phil Boriskie expressing fury at the unknown perpetrators.I find it rather spectacularly amazing that he's suddenly "mad as hell," given Draycott's contention she's been complaining about this shit for two years. Unless, of course, he's just "mad as hell" at the perpetrators for escalating the harassment to something that he couldn't ignore.
"You know me as being a calm and collected individual in the face of adversity," the chief said earlier Wednesday. "I'm having difficulty today because I'm mad, mad as hell."
I also find it amazing—and frightening and profoundly contemptible—that there is not a single man among 50 who is willing to side with Keyes and Draycott and provide information about who's terrorizing them.
I am reminded, painfully so, of Australian ambulance officer Christine Hodder, who committed suicide after intensive bullying at her job by her all-male coworkers to which management turned a blind eye for six years, and in that time had only one male colleague come to her aid. He was subsequently bullied as well.
I cannot believe there is not a single man among Keyes' and Draycott's coworkers who will not come forward in their defense, in solidarity with women who risk their lives to save others'. Despicable.
Silence, silence, and more silence:
"I mean, let's be real. I didn't come in with a blind eye to where I was working. I am at a place where it is a majority of white males," said veteran female firefighter Vantrece Williams.Imagine the level of harassment, and the endemic silencing of complaints, and the criminal complacency of management, where sexual assault isn't a scandal and its victims have to think: "Is this a battle I want to pick?" when considering whether to report it.
Williams says she's been harassed, but nothing was ever done about it. Mainly because she says many firefighters won't speak out when they witness something bad taking place.
…11 News heard allegations of women firefighters being groped by their male co-workers, and an allegation of a male firefighter masturbating over a female co-worker while she was trying to sleep in her bed.
"You see it. It gets to the point, because nothing ever happens, that you have to pick your battles," said Williams.
Now that it's reached a fevered pitch too pointed to ignore, City Council members are getting involved, with Councilperson Jarvis Johnson noting that "outside investigators may be warranted" (gee, ya think?) and calling for "a citywide zero-tolerance policy on racism." Maybe while he's at it, he could call for a citywide zero-tolerance policy on sexism, too. A black woman who's groped or—for fuck's sake—masturbated on isn't just getting targeted in that way just because she's black.
With institutional problems this entrenched, it's going to take a hell of a lot of work to change the fundamental culture of the Houston fire brigade—but naming the problems, plural, for what they are, is a good start. In fact, it's the only start, if the city really wants to effect a material change.
Despite her determination to return to the station, Draycott admitted that the abuse has taken its toll.Blub.
"I used to be so proud to be a Houston firefighter," she said. "I used to have a firefighter decal on my car. I don't anymore."
[H/T to Shaker Betsy.]