Q&A with Ali Rothrock: Finding The Way Forward

The National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) has teamed up with Ali Rothrock, CEO of On the Job and Off, to offer her course The Way Forward: Ending Sexual Harassment and Sexual Violence in the Fire Service through the NVFC Virtual Classroom. The course is free for a limited time to all members of the fire and emergency services.

This course delves into key issues like why more women don’t join the fire service, how to make a firehouse safer and more welcoming for women, how department culture can perpetuate harassment and violence, and what to do if someone is sexually assaulted in your firehouse. Department leaders can use this course as part of their department’s training in order to create a safer work environment for all members.

We recently spoke with Ali about why this course is needed, what to expect from the course, and why it is critical to bring the issues of sexual harassment and sexual violence in the fire service out in the open.

Can you tell us a little about The Way Forward: Ending Sexual Harassment and Sexual Violence in the Fire Service and why you decided to partner with the NVFC to offer this course?
This course was created in response to the overwhelming reaction I’ve had from sharing my story. I wanted to put the most helpful lessons for fire service leaders in a concrete and succinct educational curriculum. I partnered with the NVFC because they are uniquely positioned to reach volunteer firefighters of all ranks and because they are invested in the future of the fire service and care about addressing these issues.

Why is this course important for members of the fire and emergency services to take?
I am often asked why more women don’t join the fire service or why we can’t retain them when they do. This course answers both of those questions and hopes to engage firefighters of all ranks to discuss what steps we all can take to move the needle on this issue.

What can participants expect to learn from this course?
They can expect to be asked to step outside of their comfort zone and learn about rape culture, the prevalence of sexual violence, what is helpful to do and say when someone has been sexually assaulted, and what steps they can take to make their stations safer.

There may be some out there that don’t believe sexual harassment or sexual assault is a problem in the fire service. What is your response?
I would ask them to set aside their own perspective to see that many others have had a very different experience in fire stations.

How important is leadership in the role of ending sexual harassment and sexual assault in the fire service?
Leaders set the tone for the behavior that is going to be allowed in their stations. If the leadership allows behavior that excludes an entire gender from feeling welcome, that department is never going to have success with more diverse ranks. While this is the goal for some, having more diverse ranks allows us to provide better customer services to those who count on us for help.

Any words of advice for those who have been a victim of sexual harassment or sexual assault?
You are not alone and in no way is what happened your fault. There are so many of us out here who have walked down this same recovery journey. Reach out and find a support system.

This course isn’t only important for volunteers because of issues within the fire service, but it can also help create compassion and empathy towards the victims volunteers respond to. Why is this so important?
Sexual assault survivors are in a continuous state of healing from the moment they survive their assault. Each interaction they have contributes to their healing in either positive or negative ways. First responders might interact with sexual assault survivors by responding to the incident when it happens, but every single one of us knows a sexual assault survivor, even if they haven’t disclosed that to us. It is crucial that we practice speaking about and responding to this topic with empathy and with understanding.

Do you find there is a gap in training and open discussion in the fire service when it comes to the subject of sexual harassment and sexual assault?
A significant gap, yes. It’s something that people don’t want to acknowledge. If they do acknowledge it, they assume each story is an anomaly rather than commonplace. We have to be able to talk directly about this issue.

Take the course “The Way Forward: Ending Sexual Harassment and Sexual Violence in the Fire Service” in the NVFC Virtual Classroom.