CORRECTION: The Fire Chief is Brian Dale, not Brian Danes. Name has been corrected below.
I wonder if Martha Ellis always knew she wanted to be a firefighter. I can imagine her as a kindergartner showing a crude drawing of a stick figure battling flames in a red truck to her teacher saying, “Someday, that’s going to be me.” For 23 years, that was her. Originally, she worked as a wild land firefighter before joining the Salt Lake City Fire Department to serve honorably as a structural firefighter. In 2009, she was promoted to the rank of Division Chief for Salt Lake City, becoming the Salt Lake Fire Department’s Fire Marshal, the first female to hold the position. However, after speaking with Mayor’s Director of Communications in 2016 about concerns within the fire department, ranging from a hostile working environment for female firefighters to alleged fraud by executive members of the fire department, Martha Ellis was demoted and eventually terminated.
Ellis’ story matters because her experience is not completely unique. While she is making headlines, many women have been in similar situations in the workplace, facing sexual harassment or assault, being passed over for promotions despite outshining the other candidates and being forced to confront abuses of power. The firehouse is a microcosm of our own community.
This past July, audio from within the firehouse was released in which then Fire Chief Brian Dale is heard using inappropriate and offensive language to refer to female firefighters in his department. Chronicled in The Salt Lake Tribune, the comment section of this article was revealing. Instead of condemning Dale’ conduct, some supporters claim this audio could not be fairly judged without proper context. However, I cannot imagine a situation where it would be appropriate for a superior to call a subordinate a “f–ing b–.”
On her comedy show last February, Samantha Bee hosted a “Job Fair for Future Women,” detailing the harassment and assault women face while pursuing careers like forest ranger or stand-up comedian. At the end of the segment, she looks directly into the camera and says, “What’s the point of encouraging young girls to dream big if any career puts them in [danger]? There isn’t a workplace… where we are actually keeping women safe.” The #MeToo movement has only further demonstrated the sheer volume of sexual harassment in every occupation.
Two years have passed and many of the characters central to Martha Ellis’ demotion and consequential firing have moved on in their careers; the previous fire chief has retired with full benefits and individuals accused of defrauding the city of Salt Lake have received promotions. However, Martha Ellis is unable to move on. Despite a reinstatement order from the Civil Service Commission of Salt Lake City, she is still without a job and is suing in federal court in order to return to the Salt Lake Fire Department as the Fire Marshall. While her story is easily lost in the news cycle dominated by coverage of Washington D.C., Salt Lake City should not move on either. We need to be motivated to force a culture change in our society for the young girls scribbling pictures of firetrucks for their families’ refrigerators.