Dallas Fire-Rescue records detail more harassment cases



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Posted on November 11, 2009 at 12:59 PM

Updated Friday, Nov 13 at 4:15 PM

DALLAS - The public perception of most when it comes to Dallas Fire-Rescue is usually that those in the department are helpful, even heroic.

 But, some women who have worked within DFR, along with the department's own internal records, paint a very different picture.

"If the allegations in Dallas are true, then Dallas has a very, very serious problem that goes way beyond the national experience of what happens in most fire departments," said Marc Bendick, an employment economist.

Bendick co-authored last year's "A National Report Card on Women in Firefighting," which highlights challenges women face in the fire service nationwide. Harassment is a large part of the challenge.

Those problems are all too familiar in the DFR, according to a group of women who have come forward with complaints against the department.

In April, News 8 broke the story of Leanne Siri, a former high ranking civilian who claimed commanders called her names, exposed her to sexually explicit e-mails and then demoted her when she complained.

"The chief openly stated the problem was I was a woman," Siri said.

News 8 also broke the story of another victim named Cheryl Hill.

Hill found semen smeared on her keyboard in her office, across a framed picture of her daughter and in her coffee cup at the maintenance shop.

"The fact that it was in my cup made me sick and made me ill," she said.

The Internal Affairs report showed it was a civilian maintenance worker at DFR, not a uniformed firefighter who was responsible for that incident.

It is extreme, but News 8 discovered it apparently isn't isolated.

"We've run a national survey that showed that something like more than half of all women have experienced some form of harassment in their careers in the fire service," Bendick said.

So, how widespread is sexual and racial harassment in Dallas? News 8 asked to see Internal Affairs' closed cases from everyone who reported harassment in the last five years. But, the city refused to make them public. However, the Texas attorney general ordered them released.

News 8 eventually received a two-inch thick stack of papers with certain names and portions redacted. News 8 received 25 DFR cases.

In one case, documents revealed a paramedic "would flirt with females, sometimes on their [emergency calls]." A pregnant leasing agent for an apartment complex complained the officer "kept touching my belly more and more and more down, and he told me that he would like to have sex with a pregnant woman," the case file reported.

DFR fired him last year after a patient going to Parkland complained that the paramedic made obscene remarks to her about oral sex.

DFR dismissed a fire prevention officer as well this year.

"She stated she saw his pants and believed she could see him becoming sexually aroused as he touched her stomach," read a woman's statement about the officer in an affidavit to Dallas police.

An affidavit also revealed a manager in the 911 call center sent sexually explicit e-mails to a woman who worked for him. The investigation revealed the two later had an affair in his city office. He's no longer with the department.

Eight of the accused were either fired or resigned. Seven cases were unfounded. Six firefighters faced counseling, and nothing happened to four others.

Still, sexual and racial harassment only made up 25 of the 280 cases DFR Internal Affairs opened during that time period. That makes less than ten percent of all investigations.

But, Bendick said low numbers don't necessarily indicate there isn't a problem.

"A low number of complaints mean either that there are no problems in the department or the complaint process has no credibility; people are afraid to use it, afraid they'll be retaliated against," he said.

DFR does not have a zero tolerance policy against sexual or racial harassment.

Chief Eddie Burns did not respond to News 8 e-mails and voicemails. An assistant city attorney said no one would answer questions from News 8 regarding the issue since women are suing the department.

Siri and Hill are among those who have filed suits. It was "just a fantasy" the perpetrator said in the Hill case file.

Including lawsuits and complaints to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, DFR faces a half dozen allegations in all.

Documents reveal this is a smoldering situation DFR might have addressed, but hasn't extinguished.


E-mail jwhitely@wfaa.com