About 50 Austin firefighters stood together Monday to demand answers from department leaders about how they handled complaints in 2013 against a lieutenant who was charged three months ago with setting up a hidden locker room camera.
Several women who spoke at a news conference said they think that had officials treated allegations that Lt. Jim Baker was improperly touching female patients more seriously, it might have prevented further incidents that they say put women at risk.
They say it also highlights the need for the department to continue to address the challenges faced by women in the male-dominated industry.
“If a breakdown in the department’s process for investigating complaints left female patients, female firefighters or even female station visitors vulnerable, then we need to identify that breakdown and we need to fix it,” said Erin Dempsey, a 15-year firefighter.
The American-Statesman reported last month that the department treated the 2013 allegations by Baker’s colleagues as a medical training issue — not an issue possibly involving misconduct.
Three male firefighters had complained to their supervisors in writing that Baker was seen putting his hand down women’s shirts for no apparent medical reason, including once after a minor traffic collision. Several of his colleagues wrote that Baker’s actions made them and other firefighters uncomfortable.
The department said in a statement at the time that the medical director found no issues with Baker’s job performance.
Baker’s attorney has said that the union and that former colleagues of Baker, who retired this fall, are on a “witch hunt.”
Current employees say Baker’s case points to a long-standing problem.
“This department has a long history of not properly investigating harassment and sexual harassment complaints,” said Capt. Christine Jones, a department veteran of 19 years. “When I learned there were allegations against Jim Baker in 2013 for inappropriately touching female patients, and that the department did not do a proper investigation, I was outraged.”
In a statement Monday, Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr did not address the department’s handling of allegations against Baker.
However, she said the department will continue addressing how to improve working conditions for women and to combat any issue of harassment.
“In the more than 40 years that women have been members of the Austin Fire Department, the code of ‘going along to get along’ was an ever-present unspoken mantra,” Kerr said. “We took proactive steps several years ago to strengthen our harassment policy and develop one that specifically deals with relationships in the workplace.
“We are a national leader in several tactical and operation areas,” she said. “We should be a leader in this area as well. Our department, and the fire service as a whole, have an opportunity to affect additional, positive change.”