News is spreading across the country about the sexual assault of a wildland firefighter by an inmate working inside a fire basecamp in Utah. This horrifying incident has shocked the nation—indeed, the news story has been picked up by newspapers and radio stations across the country. It is truly shocking that inmates were able to mix freely with crews within basecamp, apparently unsupervised by their guards or other camp security staff, and placed in work stations where firefighters, especially women, would be most vulnerable to harassment and assault.
After a long shift on the line, coming back to basecamp exhausted and needing to take care of one’s basic needs of food and hygiene before catching a few hours of precious sleep—who would even be thinking about potential threats to one’s personal safety inside firecamp!
Firefighter safety is the number one priority of every wildland fire incident. While most people think about this in terms of the risks and hazards firefighters face out on the firelines, we need to be aware of the risks and hazards that crews face off the fireline. Crews don’t get hazard pay inside firecamp, but perhaps they should.
Like most other crimes of violence, the media is focusing on the perpetrator, portraying him as some kind of beastly animal for his deviant behavior, and this will be even easier to do because the perpetrator is an inmate already labeled as a deviant. But this is not just an issue about the lack of proper supervision of inmate crews, and while inmates should certainly be closely supervised and/or segregated from fire crews and other staff, this kind of incident is not rare and will not be prevented by eliminating the use of inmate crews.
In focusing on the perpetrator of this crime, this lets the institution evade any blame for its breakdown in security for firefighters, and for its systematic inability to effectively prevent sexual harassment and sexual assault.
Incidents of sexual assault make the news, but they are part of the wider spectrum of sexual harassment and gender discrimination that rarely gets reported by the newmedia, yet are systemic within the wildland fire community. The Association for Fire Ecology (AFE) and the International Association of Wildland Fire (IAWF) have been taking several initiatives to educate the wildland fire community and advocate for agencies to confront the systemic ongoing problem of sexual harassment and gender discrimination. Unfortunately, their efforts did not make it into the news stories. Fortunately, their advocacy for greater firefighter safety including personal safety from harassment and assault will hopefully be carried forward at the IAWF’s upcoming Fire Safety Summit and AFE’s upcoming International Fire Ecology and Management Congress.
This shocking, horrifying incident should be another wakeup call that risks to firefighter safety happen both on and off the fireline, from the fire environment—and from the fire community itself. Firefighter safety truly begins at “home.”