Local

New discrimination claims from firefighters

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

There are new and explosive allegations from veteran female Houston firefighters, who say they're being harassed on the job and their lives have been put on the line. They bypassed the fire department's top brass and took their concerns right to City Hall.

[WATCH: Full statements from female firefighters]

Back in March, someone hung a noose at Fire Station 41. Just weeks ago, someone painted sexually and racially charged remarks inside the Fire Station 54 at the big airport. Now there are new and specific allegations from veteran firefighters.

Several firefighters went before city council Tuesday to say it's the culture that needs to be addressed within the Houston Fire Department and years of complaints from women and minorities fall on deaf ears.

HFD's allegations of racial and gender discrimination went to five alarms Tuesday at City Hall as five female minority firefighters say they have all been the targets of discrimination, sexual harassment, retaliation, even forced to disregard safety protocols.

In front of city council, Houston Firefighter Maria Jordan says during the McDonald's fire in February of 2000. She says was forced to enter an unsafe building that eventually collapsed.

"We had to crawl into the side of the door of the McDonalds in order to get into this fire. We are taught that if you have to crawl into a fire, you don't need to be in there and that's what we did," said Jordan.

Two firefighters were killed and a federal investigation concluded the building construction and understaffing of the fire department contributed to the deaths.

Senior Captain Rose Arenas, a 15-year veteran, says while working at Station 6 between 1996 and 1997, she endured vicious harassment.

"They would secretly inject body fluids, for lack of a better word, and also urinate in the food, and prepare the plate and have it set on the table ready for me to come back from my run," said Arenas.

Arenas say the harassment even escalated to a potentially life-and-death situation when she responded to a fire where people were trapped. She went in for a rescue only to discover her gear had been sabotaged by a fellow firefighter.

"It had been tampered with, there were rocks and newspaper in the regulator and the regulator will not let you get oxygen while you're in a fire," said Arenas.

The other female Houston firefighters also relayed similar stories to the mayor and city council members, essentially saying there are no isolated incidents of discrimination within HFD against minorities and women, and that it is the culture of the department.

"I complain to the same individuals who are discriminating against me, the same males that are in positions of authority," said Jordan.

At times, council members were outraged at the stories the women told of what they have endured while serving in the Houston Fire Department.

Mayor White's office says they are taking all these statements seriously and issued this statement to us, "We'll have to look at the details of each of the cases, in some cases there will be reviews, in some cases there will be investigations, in some cases there already have been investigations."

Capt. Arenas says Tuesday's testimony in her words was just the tip of the iceberg, that women and minorities within HFD consistently get passed up for promotions and overtime.

The new allegations come on the same day when some Houstonians marched outside City Hall. They called it "A Rally Against Hate." They say Fire Chief Phil Boriskie should resign over the recent racial incidents. Boriskie says he's not going anywhere and Mayor White says he supports him.

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