Trouble at Station 15
Firefighter sues city after officials stonewall unequal treatment
When Nona Allen joined the Austin Fire Department in 2007, sitting alone on the cement floor of a glorified janitorial closet wasn't what she had in mind. Yet for seven months, between fighting fires alongside her fellow firefighters, that's exactly what she found herself doing. She did what she could to change her circumstances, despite internal opposition and the indifference or obstruction of AFD administrators. After fighting back through department channels without success, in the fall of last year Allen finally decided to sue the city. Her lawsuit is pending in Travis County District Court.
Allen, 28, grew up wanting to be a firefighter. Her inspiration and role model was her father, Kenneth Allen, a career firefighter and eventually the fire chief of Atlanta. "He was a great father, and he loved his job," Allen said. She started her own firefighting career in Marietta, Ga., but in 2006 moved to Austin. She liked Austin's reputation for diversity and live music and was encouraged by the AFD's stated mission of fair treatment for all. As an African-American woman, she said this mission statement – which includes the explicit goal of attracting and retaining "a qualified and diverse workforce" – was especially important to her.
"And then I got here," Allen said, "and it was a totally different story."
Separate and Unequal
In February 2007, after graduating from the Austin Fire Department Academy, Allen was assigned to the B shift at Station 15 on Airport Boulevard in East Austin. (There are three shifts at each fire station: A, B, and C. Firefighters are on duty 24 hours then off 48 hours; shifts change at noon.) Immediately, she noticed the stark differences in the provisions for male and female firefighters. The men's locker room was furnished with cushioned chairs, benches, tables, TVs, vending machines, and the station library of books and games. Other than lockers, the women's room was bare.
It's a pattern repeated throughout AFD, although the department has been working on updating stations to include facilities for women since 1999. Currently, of 44 fire stations, 22 are without separate facilities for women. According to Michelle DeCrane, AFD's public information and marketing manager, separate locker rooms will be completed in four of those stations this spring. Women's facilities in the remaining 18 will be funded by one of AFD's capital improvement projects.
Since Allen was the only woman on a permanent shift at Station 15, at first the distinctions seemed an oversight. She was soon convinced otherwise. As a probationary firefighter, or "probie," she would need to spend the next six months studying for exams to qualify for a permanent position. One of her male classmates was also at Station 15 and was provided a private study room in the men's locker room. Accordingly, Allen asked the B-shift lieutenant (and then acting captain) Ken Hagen for a desk and a chair, and he helped her move station furniture into the locker room.
When she returned to work the next day, the desk and chair had been returned to the men's locker room. She asked a male co-worker for help retrieving them and put them back in her locker room. The next day – and for many days after that – it was the same story with minor variations. She would move furniture into her locker room; someone would remove it. On some shifts, Allen would find her desk in the men's locker room, piled with 300-400 pounds of weights; male colleagues would help her remove them and return it to her room.
After about a month of this ritual, a notice was posted on the locker room door: "This locker/restroom is to be left empty of any desk or other personal effects not belonging to female firefighters." It was signed by then-Assistant Chief Jim Evans. (Evans is now the interim chief, pending the February arrival of new AFD Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr.)
"I went to my lieutenant and asked, 'What's going on?'" Allen said. Hagen promised to look into it and later told Allen that he had been informed by Station 15 C-shift Capt. Keith Weiss that the posted order came directly from Evans. Citing the pending litigation, AFD management and staff declined to comment for this story.
You Don't Belong Here
Despite official declarations welcoming all races and genders in city departments, the AFD shows little diversity in personnel. The fire force of approximately 1,000 people includes 56 African-Americans; Allen is the sole African-American woman. There are 51 women in the force, of whom 44 are assigned to operational units. (For a summary of AFD demographics, see "Disagreeing to Agree.") "The numbers give you a picture of who they're letting in and who they're not letting in," Allen said. Despite those dismal numbers, the recent contract between the city and the Austin Firefighters Association was rejected by union members, in large part because the new contract would have made it easier for management to increase staffing diversity; the union argues that allowing too much hiring flexibility to management will result in favoritism and lower performance standards. See "Disagreeing to Agree."
Throughout this period, Allen spent much of her shifts sitting on the cement floor in the women's locker room while her male colleagues played video games and watched TV across the hall. When she wanted a soda, she would have to ask one of her male colleagues to buy one for her. Yet Allen says the situation didn't interfere with her firefighting duties when her unit responded to calls to fight fires. "That was great; we worked great as a team on the job." Allen said. "I got to fight 16 fires in my first six months. That's more than anyone else in my graduating class."
Like that of all probies, her job was on the front line, holding and guiding the nozzle, working directly with her lieutenant. But for Allen, the teamwork in the field only put her experiences at the station in harsher relief. "You get back to the station all pumped up, and all the guys would go celebrate in their locker room, jamming to music, drinking Cokes, and hanging out sitting around on cushioned chairs." Allen said. "That's when it really hit home." Allen said the message she got was that she wasn't the same, that she wasn't worthy of the same benefits as her male colleagues. "That's the picture that was painted for me," she said. "You don't belong here. Every day I got that message. I didn't feel part of the group. I just got the feeling that I don't belong here – that they were saying that you're not equal to us, and I didn't deserve the same treatment as everyone else."
In April 2007, a sympathetic male colleague brought her a desk and chair from his house so she could comply with Evans' order but still have a place to study. This arrangement lasted less than a week. A few days later, she arrived at the station to find another notice stating that Evans had ordered that no furniture was allowed in the locker room.
At the end of July, Allen met with the newly appointed Station 15 B-shift captain, Chris Swenson (who had replaced Hagen), to again complain about the unequal treatment. Despite Evans' order, Swenson agreed that the women's locker room should be accorded the same rules as the men's locker room, and he allowed the furniture to be replaced.
A month later, when Allen showed up for her shift, the desk and chair were gone. A handwritten note on the women's locker room door stated that by order of Evans, the previous shift manager had removed the furniture. Swenson and Battalion 5 Chief Doug Kusey (there are six geographic battalions in the AFD; Station 15 is in Battalion 5) promised they would ask Evans what was going on, recalled Allen. They said Evans refused to change the order. "If they went up the chain of command and his boss said no," Allen said, "there's nothing else they can do without putting their own jobs in jeopardy."
Encouraged by her father, Allen began to document the disparate treatment she was receiving at Station 15. Her homemade video pans the men's locker room, a portrait of dormlike living: empty soda cans, teetering piles of video games, towels draped on the station benches and cushioned chairs. Around the corner from the main room you can see the vending machines and connected study room. Across the hall, the women's locker room – with its gray cement floor, painted cinder-block walls, and solitary line of three lockers – looks more like a cleaning-supply closet than a place to change clothes, relax after a strenuous fire call, or study for qualifying exams. (See Allen's videos of the men's and women's locker rooms at Station 15.)
Despite the humiliating routine of moving the furniture, Allen says the men in her station were mainly supportive of her request to have furniture in her locker room. "The guys used to say, 'I can't believe they're doing this – it's 2007,'" Allen said. But the continued orders from upper management made some of them wary that Allen's furniture battles were eventually going to cause problems for the furniture in the men's locker room. "I think that's why some guys were putting the weights on the desk," she said. "It was like: 'Hey man, just stop moving it. It's going to be painful to keep doing this. Just give up and leave it in here.'"
Beginning in July, Allen started requesting a transfer to another station. "I just wanted to leave; I didn't want to make a stink," Allen said. Her requests for transfer were denied.
Finally, on Sept. 11, 2007, Allen filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission accusing the department of race and gender discrimination as well as retaliation for complaining about her disparate treatment. In her claim, Allen stated that she was "subjected to different terms and conditions of employment at Station 15 when compared with my male co-workers at Station 15 and also when compared with my white female co-workers at every other Station in the City by being consistently denied comparable equipment and accommodations in the women's locker-room."
She went on to describe what she believed to be the upper-level command involvement, declaring that "Chief Evans and Chief Turpin consistently ordered that I not be provided with a bench to sit on while changing or a desk to study on, much less all other amenities that the men were allowed." (Duke Turpin is the division chief for the A shift of the entire Fire Department.)
EEOC staff member Thomas Price called Allen after she submitted her complaint and tried to convince her to drop it. "He told me that the Fire Department was already in so much trouble from the other discrimination complaints that if I dropped the case they would leave me alone for the rest of my career," said Allen. "He said that my lawyer was just trying to make money." Allen's lawyer wrote a letter to the EEOC, and Price's supervisor took him off her case. (The EEOC did not respond to calls concerning the Allen case.)
On Sept. 12, the day after she submitted her EEOC complaint, Allen was called to a meeting with then-Chief J.J. Adame (who has since resigned under pressure from city management), Evans, Assistant Chief Dawn Clopton, Swenson, Kusey, and her lieutenant, Hagen. At the meeting, Allen said, Evans claimed that the furniture debate had been a result of miscommunication. Evans said his name had been used out of context for the orders barring furniture in the women's locker room in Station 15, according to Allen. "He said that, but it couldn't be true," Allen said. "Both my captain and battalion chief had gone to speak to Evans personally to ask if I could have furniture, and he told them, 'No, she can't have it.' That's who the written orders came from."
When she returned to Station 15 after that meeting, she found that all of the things that she had wanted had been supplied. A desk and a chair had been placed in her locker room, and the vending machines had been moved from the men's locker room to a common area. "The funny thing was, I never got to use any of it," Allen said. On that same shift, Allen was informed that her request to be transferred to another station had been granted.
Since September 2007, Allen has been working at Station 26, on Wentworth Drive in Northeast Austin. She's much happier. "It's totally different there – everyone shares all the furniture in one big locker room," she said. There are individual bathrooms for changing. Allen says she now has time to concentrate on firefighting.
Station 15: 'Dereliction of Duty'
In spite of Allen's ongoing difficulties and the department's abrupt reversal once her complaint was filed, a department representative told a KTBC-TV reporter that the EEOC had "not supported [Allen's] claims." In fact, the EEOC's response, dated July 9, 2008, was ambiguous. Allen did receive a "Dismissal and Notice of Rights Response" – a standardized form, signed by commission San Antonio District Director Pedro Esquivel, stating that investigators were "unable to conclude" wrongdoing but that they couldn't completely rule it out either: "This does not certify that respondent [the city of Austin AFD] is in compliance with the statutes." According to Will Sutton, Allen's attorney, 98% of EEOC complaints receive similar responses. "They are overworked and underfunded, so they just don't have time to investigate these claims," said Sutton.
In June, Allen met with Assistant City Manager Michael McDonald, who said he was very concerned about the allegations and wanted to know why AFD assistant chiefs had time to worry about station furniture placement. He promised that he and City Manager Marc Ott personally would conduct an investigation and demand accountability and get back to Allen in two weeks. Allen never heard from McDonald again, though a city representative communicated a month and a half later that it appeared that the whole controversy was all a result of miscommunication of Evans' orders.
McDonald declined to comment specifically on Allen's case but provided a statement: "Any time these types of issues are raised, they are of concern to the City of Austin. However, there are pending legal actions; therefore, we are not in a position to publicly discuss this case."
One firefighter unsurprised by Allen's experience is Lt. Jan Wesson. She joined the AFD 25 years ago. Like Allen, Wesson started in Station 15. "They couldn't have chosen a worse place to assign her," said Wesson, now Allen's lieutenant at Station 26. There have been a total of three African-American women in the history of the AFD. In 2004, one of them, Barbara Jonell Booker, a probationary firefighter, was fired after only three months, a very rare occurrence, Wesson said. In 2006, Booker sued the city for discrimination. (The suit was dismissed in October; Booker's attorney, Robert Notzon, says she will appeal.) "Then Nona comes three years later and is top notch – in the top of her class – and all of these problems are happening," said Wesson.
Asked about Allen's case and Booker's before her, Darren Hyson, secretary of the Austin African-American Firefighters Association, responded, "It just so happens that the only two African-American females hired [by AFD] have been mistreated. They did not receive the same treatment that their peers of equal status have received."
In Wesson's time, her male colleagues used to post pornographic magazines in her changing room. "Back then, there was nothing you could do to stop them," Wesson said. Though such explicitly sexist and hostile behavior toward female firefighters is now rare, there's still a sense that the Fire Department "doesn't have to play by the same rules as everyone else," said Wesson. She says the stage was set for a less than welcome reception for Allen. "Until about a month before Nona [Allen] was assigned there, the guys had been using that room as a sleeping room," said Wesson. "They had to remove the bed so she could have a locker room. Knowing that history, if I was in upper management and got a complaint from the only African-American female in the department, I would go down to the station and find out exactly what was going on," Wesson said. "To not do so is dereliction of duty."
On Sept. 18, 2008, Allen filed a discrimination lawsuit against the city of Austin.
A Community Issue
Every station has a different layout, but Allen knows of other stations with furniture in the women's locker rooms. In Station 4, for instance, she said a female firefighter has a bed in her locker room. And there are no rules that say you can't put furniture in locker rooms, she said. In fact, a department memo from seven years ago states that the female locker room in Station 15 should have seating. "So if it's not the fact that I'm a woman – if other women have furniture and it's not a problem – for me that's when it crosses over to race," Allen said.
On Oct. 17, the city filed a response to Allen's lawsuit in which it denied the allegations of discrimination. "Defendant asserts that it had legitimate nondiscriminatory reasons for its actions and that its actions were not discriminatory," reads the brief. The city argues that Allen "failed to exhaust administrative remedies" and that therefore her "claims ... are barred in whole or part" and that the statute of limitations has already passed. The city takes "special exception" to Allen's claims that she was the victim of retaliatory treatment and racial discrimination (not, however, to her claims of gender discrimination) and requests that the court require her to prove these allegations. Discovery between the parties will proceed over the next few months; Sutton says that, as a general rule, such cases take an average of 18 to 24 months to go to trial, though most of these cases settle before making it to court.
"I never wanted to go to court. ... I just want a place to sit – that's it. This is crazy, that you have to go to court to get something done," Allen said. "If I were to just sit back and say, 'OK, this is just a guy thing,' then the same thing would happen to the next person to come along. ... It would just kill my heart if this happened to somebody else. This is where I live, and Austin is my community. I cannot let that happen to anybody else. This is not a 'Nona versus city of Austin' issue – it's a community issue."