Canada·CBC Investigates

Female firefighters face bullying, sexual harassment, fifth estate finds

Only about 600 of Canada's 22,000 firefighters are women, and that imbalance in the workplace is another obstacle when it comes to dealing with problems of bullying and sexual harassment, a fifth estate investigation found.

About 600 of Canada's 22,000 firefighters are women, and workplace issues can be hard to negotiate

  • UPDATED | This story has been updated to reflect the most-recent developments in the legal proceedings involving Robert Bennett.

Theirs is a reputation that is, quite literally, forged in fire, built on bravery, dedication and danger.

But, for many of Canada's female firefighters, there can be a dark side: bullying, harassment and sexual assaults, a fifth estate investigation has found.

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Kirstin Rudolph is a former volunteer firefighter from Fort. St. James, B.C., who says her chief sexually assaulted her and two other women she worked with for six years.

"He would ask me to have sex with him in his office," Rudolph says. "He would say if I want a promotion why don't I put on my knee pads and blow him under his desk."

In February of 2015, Rob Bennett, the former fire chief of Fort St. James, B.C. was convicted of three counts of sexual assault.

At trial, Bennett insisted his actions weren't sexual and that he was just being humorous with the women. The judge didn't agree, blaming the chief for creating "a toxic environment."

Bennett appealed his conviction, arguing that the trial judge's conduct led to a miscarriage of justice, that the judge misconstrued the evidence and that his lawyer's representation fell below the standard. In October 2016, the B.C. Court of Appeal ruled that the trial judge's conduct "was not reasonably indicative of an open mind" and ordered a new trial.

In December of 2017, Bennett was found not guilty on two of the three counts. The jury was unable to reach a verdict on the third count. A new trial related to that charge is expected to take place in 2018. 

Suffering in silence

Unlike virtually every other profession today, firefighting remains an almost exclusively male domain.

Of 22,000 professional firefighters in Canada, only about three per cent are women — that's around 600 for the whole country. While several fire services are working hard to recruit young women, some veterans say they face daily horrors.

Kirstin Rudolph is a former volunteer firefighter from Fort. St. James, B.C., who says her chief sexually assaulted her and two other women she worked with for six years. (Alex Pierre/CBC)

One woman, who is still working as a firefighter, spoke to the fifth estate on the condition of anonymity. She says that a senior firefighter in her fire hall began helping her out when she was new.

But it quickly turned into something else.

"He would send me very detailed … text messages about certain things that were sex-related," she says. "And it continued and continued, and it just got worse and worse," until the point where he forced himself on her, she said, in the fire hall dorm.

the fifth estate talked to dozens of female firefighters across the country who have had similar experiences and say that they are suffering in silence, and that something needs to change.

The problems, though, may be systematic, suggests Jennifer Pernfuss, who coaches companies and their employees in the prevention and elimination of workplace discrimination, harassment and conflict.

"Harassment and bullying exist in every organization," Pernfuss says. But in the fire service they are "particularly pervasive because of the para-militaristic model.

"There is a chain of command, so if you're experiencing difficulty and you're feeling mistreated, the person or people that you have to raise it to, based on this chain of command, is someone who may not be receptive to the complaint, may not know how to effectively handle the complaint, or may themselves be involved in the behaviour."

In Ottawa, only two per cent of the city's 1,000 firefighters are women, but Gerry Pingitore, the city's fire chief, is trying to change this statistic.

Ottawa runs a camp for young girls ages 15-19 called Camp FFIT (Female Firefighters in Training), and Pingitore hopes it will encourage more women to join the profession.

But, he says, the reality is that firefighters are better trained to deal with danger than workplace complaints.

"Any one of my officers at the fire station could take their crew into a hazardous environment like a house fire and bring them out safely onto the sidewalk after they've done their job," Pingitore says.

"Ask that same officer to deal with a harassment claim, it's very difficult for that individual to do. We have to give them the tools and the ability to deal with those types of issues, there's no question about it."

Lauren Thibault, 18, is a recruit at the Nova Scotia Firefighters School, making her not only the youngest recruit, but one of only three female recruits in the intensive, 22-week program. (CBC)

Pingitore's fire service hired Pernfuss to help work on the problems at the fire hall. The first step she took was a survey among the firefighters.

It showed that 33 per cent of the city's firefighters knew there was harassment and bullying going on in their department and didn't do anything to stop it.

The female firefighters who talked to the fifth estate say they would encourage young women to get into the profession, and said that they loved the job.

Lauren Thibault is a recruit at the Nova Scotia Firefighters School. At just 18, she is not only one of very few female recruits in the program but the youngest one there.

That doesn't faze Thibault. "Maybe I'll be one of those [three] per cent," she says. "I like those odds. I think that's hilarious… so that's why I'm here."

For confidential tips on this story, please contact Linda Guerriero at