Nova Scotia·CBC Investigates

Halifax firefighters say they were targeted for complaining about sexism

Two former Halifax firefighters say they were pushed out of the force after they complained about harassment and inappropriate behaviour.

Investigation found volunteer firefighter was terminated in retaliation for complaining

About 120 firefighters leave the service every year, according to the Halifax Fire Department. (Stephanie vanKampen/CBC News )

Two former Halifax firefighters say they were targeted after they complained about harassment and inappropriate behaviour on the job. 

Paul Service served as a volunteer firefighter for five years in Harrietsfield. But shortly after he began training in 2008, he noticed what he calls disturbing behaviour. 

"A generalized behaviour of demeaning female firefighters, that their skills weren't on par," says Service. 

"When two female firefighters arrive, referring to them as the dream team." 

'Just mind-blowing'

Service says it wasn't just women who were victimized. He says rookies and non-native English speakers were harassed as well. 

"To see this coming out from the department and at the station level was just mind-blowing — mind-numbing actually." 

Service describes an instance when he put a female firefighter on the frontline of a car fire, and was told he should have waited for a more "experienced" firefighter, even though everyone had the same level of training.  

Paul Service served as a volunteer firefighter for five years before being terminated in 2013. (Submitted by Paul Service )

He says he and three other firefighters met with the station chief to raise their concerns about sexism. Service says they were told not to continue with the complaint. 

"It was normalized and it was accepted, and God forbid if you said anything outside of the station," says Service. 

"The fear is real. The thought is real there — if you do formalize this complaint, you're gonna be done." 

Service says he was criticized by the station chief for bringing up his concerns. Service felt his complaint was being mishandled, and raised the issue with fire department headquarters immediately after meeting with the station chief. 

Service was subsequently terminated as a volunteer in a meeting with the station chief. He says he was not given a reason for his termination but eventually was told it was due to a "breach of command." 

When contacted by CBC News, the Halifax Fire Department would not comment on any specific complaints.  

Termination is rare

Phil McNulty, executive officer with the Halifax Fire Department, says it is rare for volunteers or career firefighters to be terminated. 

The turnover rate at Halifax Fire is 12 per cent, which means about 120 people leave the force every year. 

According to McNulty, most leave of their own accord.  

Paul Service worked out of the fire station in Harrietsfield. (Submitted by Paul Service)

Service fought the termination, taking it through all three levels of appeal and nearly a year-long investigation by the city's human resources department.  The investigation concluded Service was fired in an act of retaliation because he filed a complaint.

The city did not take any action based on the report's findings. 

McNulty would not speak about specific complaints, but says the findings of internal investigations are not binding. 

McNulty says the department encourages people to speak out when they see or hear of inappropriate behaviour.  

"If we're not aware of things that may or may not be going on in the workplace, we really can't deal with it," says McNulty. 

McNulty says there are processes in place for people to raise concerns. But Service says he followed these processes but ended up being terminated for filing a complaint.  

'I was targeted'

Kathy Symington, a career firefighter who worked for the Halifax Fire Department for 18 years, also says her complaint was not taken seriously.

She says she experienced sexual harassment while on the job, and suspected a colleague had vandalized her car after it was damaged three times in one year while parked outside the fire station. 

"I was targeted," says Symington

"And then when I went to get some help with it, I became what I believe is targeted even more." 

Symington filed a complaint, but says management didn't genuinely investigate her case. Instead, she says, the department investigated her. 

"They hauled me down to the police station and gave me a three-hour interrogation. I'm not sure what that was for. But they were trying to blame me for vandalizing my own car," says Symington. 

An internal investigator decided her harassment claim was unfounded.

However, the colleague she suspected of vandalism also filed a complaint of harassment against her. An investigation found that complaint was legitimate and Symington was suspended for three days.

Systemic gender discrimination

Both Paul Service and Kathy Symington plan to help with the case of another former firefighter, Liane Tessier. Tessier is scheduled to have a hearing before a Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission tribunal within the next year.  

Tessier says there is a problem with systemic gender discrimination within the Halifax Fire Department. 

Service and Symington want to see the fire department change how complaints are handled. They say it needs to be easier for firefighters to bring complaints forward without the fear of retaliation. 


Stephanie vanKampen


Stephanie vanKampen is a videojournalist with the CBC News in Prince Edward Island. Send story ideas to stephanie.vankampen