Edmonton fire struggles with discrimination, bullying and diversity; trust in leadership broken

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Edmonton fire struggles with discrimination, bullying and diversity; trust in leadership broken

The Edmonton fire department is struggling with discrimination and bullying, and efforts to make the workforce more diverse are facing resistance at a time where trust between demoralized firefighters and management has broken down.

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Postmedia obtained an internal summary of the Edmonton Fire Rescue Service’s (EFRS) 2022 workplace assessment by Canadian law firm Rubin Thomlinson released internally to employees in April. The report outlines allegations of sexist, racist and homophobic comments and behaviour, bullying and hazing, and inadequate mental health supports and tactical training. At the same time, it illustrates significant skepticism of and resistance to the department’s specific diversity programs and training, that many feel is out of touch.

The summary, which outlines key themes from a 600-plus participant survey and 88 interviews, describes a culture of fear: fear of retaliation for speaking up about discrimination and bullying, and on the other hand, fear that making a mistake could mean losing their jobs.

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It also shows low morale and a lack of confidence in Chief Joe Zatylny and his leadership team. Firefighters’ job satisfaction has plummeted since he took the helm in 2020, other city surveys show.

Postmedia spoke to seven current or former EFRS employees including the union’s president, and city manager Andre Corbould. These interviews corroborated or expanded on the experiences and opinions described in the Rubin Thomlinson report.

EFRS leadership and the City of Edmonton are working on an action plan to respond to each of the firm’s 21 recommendations and hope to rebuild trust. Chief Zatylny has taken a leave of absence for personal reasons and did not respond to interview requests.

Discrimination, bullying and hazing

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Positive feedback about the camaraderie, trust and mentorship between colleagues in fire halls, feeling like a family, and a sense of pride in their work was most common in the workplace assessment. 

But a supportive workplace culture isn’t experienced equally by everyone all the time.

Some experienced racist comments directly and saw racist materials distributed within fire halls. Workers also heard racially charged inappropriate jokes, and derogatory comments about members of the public while on-call or at dispatch. Some examples of homophobic comments and attitudes were given.

Questioning women employees’ qualifications, excluding women from aspects of their job, “sexualized” and misogynistic comments, displaying sexist material, “demonstrations and gestures of disrespect,” and dismissing outreach programs to draw more women firefighters were reported. 

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Bullying by peers or leaders more generally, such as being pressured to do extra work, isolated, targeted by gossip, teased or yelled at, threatened with job loss, and treated unfairly because of political views, was reported.

Fear of speaking up is a common thread. This apprehension was made clear during Postmedia’s interviews with current and former EFRS employees. Names of confidential sources are replaced with pseudonyms because they fear professional repercussions and retaliation.

Several firefighters told Postmedia fire halls are like locker rooms for men’s hockey teams. They said derogatory comments about marginalized populations — particularly Indigenous people, women, and homeless people — are common.

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“The racism and misogyny and homophobia is pretty rampant … If firefighters are saying, ‘No, that doesn’t happen,’ then they’re not paying attention,” one employee, Alex, said. 

“Everybody expects firefighters to go and help everybody regardless of who they are, and we do, but behind closed doors, it’s a different narrative.”

Another EFRS employee described hearing male firefighters regularly talk about women’s sexual histories and making sexualized comments about women’s bodies which can make employees feel unsafe and unwelcome.

Those who spoke with Postmedia were clear most firefighters aren’t engaging in discriminatory behaviour — all said they don’t support it. But they said although many firefighters disagree with these actions, they fear speaking up for others, or themselves, will alienate them from the rest of their crews.

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The fear of reprisal is so prevalent that another EFRS employee, Sam, said some didn’t even feel safe participating in the Rubin Thomlinson confidential assessment.

“It’s career-ending. You wouldn’t feel safe, you wouldn’t feel welcome in the fire hall if you spoke against the majority, because people don’t believe (them)… they sum it up to them being unworthy, or lazy, or that they’re just not fit for the job,” Sam said.

Sam also worries new recruits from minority populations will be “rookied harder” by older white, male firefighters, because of a prevailing but mistaken belief the hiring standards have been lowered.

“If you fail these tests, obviously, it’s your reputation that suffers … whatever it is that you didn’t do, it will be spread (through) gossip and rumour,” Sam said. “There’s no avenue for safety when you’re underrepresented … if you go out of your way to express a need for something, everyone will know about it.”

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These experiences aren’t universal. Some surveyed, and interviewed by Postmedia, who self-identified as racialized, women or part of the LGBTQ2S+ community spoke positively about their workplace and felt included. One woman, a former employee, said she never felt slighted because of her race or gender by firefighters although she doesn’t feel she was treated fairly by management. However, she knows others have different experiences because of how many men there are compared to women.

City manager Andre Corbould and the mayor both said they’re grateful for the work firefighters do. Corbould emphasized issues with discrimination are a problem with some individuals and not the entire fire service, but issues with systemic racism will take time to fix.

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“I want to be also absolutely clear that bullying, harassment, discrimination are just not acceptable anywhere in the city, they’re not consistent with our policies … and those things won’t be tolerated,” he said, adding they will not hesitate to use the appropriate discipline.

Corbould said the city and fire leadership are working on the action plan and “we’re going to deal with these concerns” and that discriminatory behaviour will not be tolerated.

He said the city wants to create a culture where not only can people speak up if they are experiencing issues themselves, but also where people feel free to speak up and say “that was inappropriate. We should talk about that.”

Mayor Amarjeet Sohi said in a statement he is “deeply saddened” to hear of the systemic issues around discrimination and with the challenges around the EDI training. He said the city manager and fire chief are committed to making changes and communication needs to be improved.

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“Each and every service member in EFRS deserves a safe and inclusive work environment where they are able to thrive. … Every day, members of the EFRS go above and beyond their duty to serve and protect Edmontonians,” he said.

The city has a safe disclosure office for those who want to raise concerns confidentially.

Low morale

But morale has plummeted under Zatylny’s leadership. The Rubin Thomlinson report shows broken trust between firefighters and management. 

Some firefighters say mental health supports have weakened and leadership is top-heavy and makes poor decisions. They say the chief is a poor communicator and doesn’t seek input from workers on the ground, leading to a disconnect between firefighters and the executive team. Many don’t feel their safety and tactical skills training is being prioritized.

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Edmonton Fire Fighters Union president Greg Rehman said morale is the lowest he’s seen in decades.

“People don’t feel supported right now,” he told Postmedia. “People feel the management is being disingenuous, so when they’re bringing feelings and concerns forward … a lot of the times they’re being dismissed and discounted. Our members, they want deeds not words from our management.”

Firefighters attributed this in the report to the COVID-19 pandemic, the opioid crisis, increased call volumes, and actions by the chief and leadership. Rehman said workers are feeling the strain of the increased call volumes and don’t feel like they’re getting the help they need.

Alex, a EFRS employee, said the department is “outright failing” to support their mental health.

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One EFRS employee interviewed by Postmedia, Courtney, feels the leadership team is “running our fire department into the ground.”

“(We) want to change management … If you were to put a vote up today to the whole floor, they would say, ‘Look, we need a new chief. We need a new deputy chief.’ ”

The relationship between management and firefighters is so poor the Edmonton Fire Fighters Union made the unprecedented move to not invite the chief to the annual retirement banquet last month, describing a “significant deterioration in the working relationship” in a letter obtained by Postmedia.

The City of Edmonton’s job satisfaction surveys show 48 per cent of EFRS workers say they are happy with their job, down from 90 per cent in 2018. Unionized firefighters have been without a renewed contract for more than four years.

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Other employees, however, are supportive of the leadership’s direction.

Tension over diversity training

The city-run equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) training is causing some of the most tension.

While many surveyed said they generally support diversity, there is conflict around the specific training modules and other decisions meant to diversify the workforce. Some feared this training is being prioritized over others. Multiple firefighters Postmedia spoke with echoed these views.

“We don’t want racism, we don’t want sexism, we want that out of our job completely,” Courtney said.  “I really believe in diversity and inclusion. I really do. I think it’s something that definitely needs to change in our world … but not at the cost of safety.”

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Some firefighters feel the EDI modules are negative, blaming, and do not encourage learning. Others felt “silenced or intimidated” by the content and said difficult questions were not handled well, the report states.

“You’re trying so hard to have a diverse department, but at the same time, you’re making it so that it’s very hard for people to accept anybody new that way because you’re scared for your own job,” Jesse, a firefighter said. “You’re scared for what you can say and can’t say.”

Some EFRS employees told Postmedia they feel discouraged by or resent the resistance to the EDI training. They correctly pointed out the goal of the Rubin Thomlinson review was to hear how people feel, not fact-check whether what they are saying is true.

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“I think it’s a resistance to change, a resistance to evolve,” Sam said. “I just feel like this whole workplace assessment is just pandering to their white fragility. They’re always talking about how they’re walking on eggshells and not knowing what they can or cannot say, when that’s such a cop-out.

“In a department where we’re trying to effectively give change and give safety and belonging to underrepresented people, it’s going to be a battle that is so hard to win.”

Alex said some seem to be having a hard time absorbing the training because they feel like the city is pushing it down their throats, and there is a lot of misplaced anger.

“I understand people feel the way the feel, but their feelings are kind of misplaced … there’s no self-reflection,” Alex said. “It’s a longstanding euphemism that we don’t like change, and we don’t like the way things are.

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“The problem is that people don’t understand what they’re saying is racist, misogynist, homophobic or discriminatory or hateful in any kind of way.”

Concerns about hiring practices and “lowering standards” to accommodate a diverse workforce appeared throughout the report and were echoed in interviews with Postmedia. In fact, the city says standards are high and rigorous. The city also has outreach programs to get the interest of groups who otherwise may have been less likely to apply.

Tailor training to firefighters: expert

Diversity and inclusion training expert and UCLA professor Corrine Bendersky is not surprised to hear there is pushback to EDI training. Bendersky, who spent years researching fire departments, said firefighters need programs tailored specifically to them because they are skeptical of outsiders who do not understand them.

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When cities bring in their human resources team for firefighters’ EDI training, usually it doesn’t resonate, she said.

“Credibility in the fire service is 100 per cent based on your firefighter competence. They are really resistant to outsiders telling them they should do something differently when you don’t know about the fire service,” Bendersky said. “If it’s not coming from credible and respected members of the fire service, it’s going to backfire. Period.”

Some firefighters feel like they are “walking on eggshells” for fear of offending someone. One firefighter told Postmedia he is afraid to talk to women firefighters because he worries he may unintentionally say something offensive and get fired.

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Bendersky said this is common in fire halls and comes down to a lack of training around handling interpersonal conflict.

But firefighters shouldn’t be afraid to ask difficult questions in training sessions, she said. Many firefighters are concerned about changes in hiring practices, often related to safety concerns, and this needs to be addressed in a constructive way, she said.

“If I can’t express my skepticism without being labeled as a racist or sexist, then I don’t feel that it’s inclusive … It’s actually really hard to do well to facilitate dialogue that’s tolerant of the wide range of opinions,” she said. “Even if it is sort of a very inappropriate or very ignorant comment, it’s taking that opportunity to question, or to learn and grow from it, rather than to quash that kind of inquiry.”

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The city manager said he’s heard from the fire chief and the union that firefighters should be involved in delivering the EDI training, and he agrees it is a good idea for any city department to have influence in the workplace, although he said some modules will be the same for all city departments.

Corbould said this feeling of “walking on eggshells” is something discussed during the training and he wants employees to be able to talk about it.

“We believe there is a learning environment,” he said. “We want people to speak about this, because it’s only if people speak about it … that we’re going to we’re going to change some of the culture.”

But some ideas, although uncomfortable, still need to be discussed, he said.

“There is a thing called white privilege. We know it exists, it’s part of our anti-racism training to understand that I am a white man, I have come from white privilege. And I have personally learned on my own personal journey about what that means,” he said. “We’re not going to shy away from talking about things like that.”

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“White privilege is a reality in our society, and it contributes to racism. … We are tackling that up front in this city, and we’re going to talk about it.”

He said the city provides the fire department with courses on respectful workplace behaviour, inclusive language workshops, and lessons on Indigenous history.

List: Rubin Thomlinson’s recommendations

  1. The COE (City of Edmonton) and EFRS create a team or committee to review the feedback and recommendations shared with them and prepare and action plan to respond, including accountabilities, timelines, and an evaluation process (involving employees) to measure success.
  2. The COE and EFRS host a virtual town hall meeting with all interested EFRS employees at which they share the themes of the feedback identified in this report, as well as their action plan to respond to feedback.
  3. The fire chief and FET (Fire Executive Team) specifically reflect on the feedback provided in the report and consider how to regain the trust of EFRS employees and increase engagement between themselves and employees at fire halls.
  4. The fire chief, along with subject matter experts, review existing action plans relating to EDI within EFRS having heard the feedback outlined in our report. We recommend that the EFRS’s EDI program: use evidence-based approaches; highlight the rationale for and benefits of action items; include metrics for success; be targeted for the EFRS’s workplace culture; leverage positive elements of the existing culture while pushing to grow and improve the culture overall.
  5. The EFRS’s EDI plan should be shared directly with EFRS employees, allowing for questions and feedback.
  6. The Respect and Diversity Advisory Council be comprised of employees across a range of personal identities and professional roles within EFRS, including a member of the EFRS leadership team, and that the council have a terms of reference, regular meetings, and clearly defined roles within the EFRS.
  7. The EFRS continue its efforts to increase the diversity of its workforce and its leadership team, using a broad recruitment process and equitable hiring process, clearly explained to fire fighters as part of the overall communication of the EDI plan. In both instances, diversity should not be too narrowly defined.
  8. The EFRS continue to ensure that EDI-related training forms one component of a robust training program for EFRS employees that also includes training on technical firefighting skills. The purpose and goals of the EDI sessions should be clearly explained to participants, the sessions should be developed specifically for EFRS employees, and, where possible, trusted EFRS employees could be used to deliver, or co-facilitate, sessions. The sessions should engage participants in a dialogue in which participants can safely ask questions on the topics discussed.
  9. All EFRS employees continue to be made aware of their rights and responsibilities under the COE and EFRS policies relating to workplace behaviour and the related processes to address behaviour. Leadership should model positive behaviour in the workplace and have the skills to confront and address inappropriate behaviour. Once expectations have been set, we recommend that there be a culture of accountability at EFRS in which EFRS employees, regardless of rank, feel that their right to a workplaces free of harassment, bullying and discrimination, is a priority of (the city) and EFRS leadership and that when someone violates that right, it will be addressed.
  10. Following an investigation or findings of wrongdoing, general information should be shared with EFRS leadership (while respecting privacy and confidentiality) to ensure a shared understanding of issue types within the service and to ensure consistent and shared efforts to prevent future occurrences of similar behaviour.
  11. As part of broader efforts to create a culture of accountability, employees should receive regular training on what constitutes retaliation, and on how to identify and prevent it.
  12. Both the chain of command and the Safe Disclosure Office should remain as options for employees to raise concerns about behaviour in the workplace.
  13. Where allegations are serious, complex, and/or involve senior leaders, consideration should be given to using an external third party to conduct the investigation.
  14. Any individual who raises a concern(s) should be clearly advised as to how their concern(s) will be addressed, and should be advised of the outcome of any investigation into their concern(s).
  15. Anyone within the EFRS tasked with receiving formal or informal complaints of disrespectful workplace behaviour be trained in both the subject matter of such complaints and the process to gather relevant information from the parties involved.
  16. Although we do not believe that a lack of fire experience necessarily means that someone cannot competently take on a leadership role within the (fire executive team), we recommend that efforts be put in place to create future leaders who might be promoted to senior leadership positions from within the EFRS, specifically: access to leadership training for interested fire fighters and captains; access to external educational opportunities; structured and formalized mentorship opportunities; and a hiring process for senior leaders that value fire experience and knowledge of the EFRS, in addition to other required education, skills and experience.
  17. Future Leadership Competency Plans be developed with a sufficiently broad focus to allow future leaders to acquire a range of knowledge and skills that will allow them to rise to senior leadership levels should they have an interest in pursuing those roles. While EDI initiatives need to remain a key element of leader training, sessions on managing people, providing feedback, and effecting change should be prioritized.
  18. The mental health and wellbeing of EFRS employees continue to be prioritized by COE and EFRS leadership and that continuous efforts be made to ensure that there are adequate peer supports and that resources be allocated to this group in a way that can assist in preventing burnout among individuals filling these roles.
  19. EFRS employees regularly be made aware of all the supports that are available to them and regularly be asked about the supports they would like to see in place.
  20. EFRS continuously prioritizes the filling of leadership roles tasked with protecting mental health and wellbeing of EFRS employees in a timely manner and with individuals who have, or can quickly earn, the trust and respect of EFRS employees.
  21. Any approaches to sick time management for EFRS employees be targeted to them directly and incorporate a lens that considers the risks and impacts of their roles.

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