Welcome back for the conclusion of this three-part blog. Last time ended when Eddie, worried I was out to get him, transferred to a different firehouse.
With Eddie gone we were assigned a tramp each following shift to take his place. A tramp in Minneapolis is a term for a firefighter, female or male, sent to a different station than their regular assignment.
My tramp for the day was Joe, who had a side gig refinishing wood floors. I was in the middle of a massive remodel at home. In an attempt to find some common ground, I mentioned the reclaimed wood floors I was having installed.
“Sweet,” Joe said. “I’d love to take a look and give you a bid.”
“We already have our floor guy.” I said.
“Sweet,” he said again. “Still, I’d love to come take a look.”
I talked to our contractor to see if we could switch. Next, I discussed hiring Joe with my partner. She was hesitant but I was persistent.
I remember saying, “I have to use my firefighter brother.”
She gave in and Joe came to ‘take a look’. He ripped up part of the floor and after saying ‘sweet’ several times he scribbled a bid on his official floor business stationary. We had a beer on the patio. We found a time slot that would work with the remodel schedule and we hired Joe. I remember thinking, this will smooth things over at the station.
And it did, for a while. It was fun having Joe in the backseat. We talked about floors and I shared pictures of our incoming countertops and our amazing maple island. He wore his mask at car fires and I ate with the crew at dinner.
On the day Joe was scheduled to rip up the old floor and install the new one, his employee showed up at my house. He let me know he would get started and Joe would be there later for the install. I retreated to the basement. Thirty minutes later his employee knocked on the basement door.
“I called Joe,” he said. “We’re gonna walk away from the job.”
I assumed he meant they couldn’t work on it today and would finish tomorrow.
He continued, “It’s a harder job than we thought. We’re not coming back.”
I went to the basement and called Joe. “Joe your guy says you’re not doing the job. You realize I scheduled you in. I fought with my partner to get you this job.”
“What do you want me to say?”
“I want you to say you’re going to do what you said you would do.” I admit my voice was not calm.
Joe hung up.
I called my friend, also a firefighter and in law school.
“He can’t do that,” she said.
“He’s doing it.”
“No. I mean it’s against the,” (insert legal terms) “you can sue him. Is the guy still there?”
I ran to the window and saw he was, sitting in his truck in the driveway.
My friend said, “Turn on your phone recorder and go talk to him about what just happened.”
I did it. I didn’t think I’d sue but my friend is smart, so I recorded our conversation.
I called and texted Joe trying to work something out. I hired the original floor guy again but now he had to postpone another job and it was going to cost me. It put our remodel back a week and it put me in the doghouse.
Joe ignored my calls and texts. I was mad. I knew Joe would never treat a brother the way he was treating me. I felt dismissed.
I sued and I won. Yes, I sued my firefighter brother.
Shortly after, I got a text from Bettie, the same woman who voted against me at the union meeting. Is money worth so much to you that you would sue our brother? She wrote. I felt misunderstood, shamed. Sometimes I wish I had made a different choice. Suing Joe changed my career. Not a lot, I got paid the same. I put out fires and saved lives. I had always been treated somewhat less than, which continued. I still fooled myself and chased the flash, but not as much. I no longer believed I could be part of the team. Especially when the bullying started.
The bullying from the brotherhood on Facebook and on the fireground went on for a year. The membership rallied around Joe suggesting they collect the money he owed me in pennies. Some went so far to make racial comments (I was leading a fire academy for young people in the East African community) by suggesting they should collect shillings. No one asked: why did our brother break his commitment to a firefighter. Is it because the firefighter is a woman? Maybe no one asked because we already know it is the reason. Women are valued less and we, not only in the fire department but in our society, accept it. We let it slide.
I wasn’t sure I would be able to continue at the fire department. I transferred to a slow station, out of the action and into the quiet. And then the energy suddenly shifted. It was like the flash reflecting a shiny object in the distance. One of the men defended me on the Facebook-bully comment stream, and then the bullying stopped. One comment. He wrote, ‘She won the lawsuit, maybe she’s right.’
I’m thankful for him. I felt like I caught the flash without chasing it. The little energy it must have required for him to stand up for me and the huge impact he had baffles me. I wish we didn’t need the good guys to stand up. I wish we could see that it is not gender that gives us the courage and the ability to fight a fire. It’s heart.
No matter how often women show we belong; the fire department is steadfast in tradition to prove we don’t. The good guys must stand up. Good guys don’t stand by and let bullies, bully. I wish the good guys would be good guys. All of them—everyday. It’s where men can be heroes and not just firefighters. Why limit us as brothers or sisters? While the brotherhood excludes us, sisterhood keeps us separate. It will be a flashy fine day when we finally become the sibling-hood.
Please share a time when one comment or small act performed by you or someone else made a difference.
Captain Tracy Moore is a retired Minneapolis firefighter and the author of the soon to be released novel, The Fire She Fights. Find out more at thefireshefights.com