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City Council sounds alarm over locker rooms for female firefighters

Monday, August 15, 2016 by Cate Malek

A multiyear project to provide locker rooms for Austin’s female firefighters has stuttered past its deadline, causing frustration among both firefighters and City Council.

At a budget work session on Aug. 10, Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr promised to redouble her efforts to finish construction of locker rooms at six fire stations where installation was supposed to be completed in 2015. Kerr agreed with four female Council members who said the project is long overdue and should be prioritized.

“As a woman chief, and having been in the fire service since 1983, when there weren’t even locks on the bathroom doors … I’m embarrassed, and I’m ashamed that we haven’t fixed the problem,” she said.

But Kerr – who is one of only three female fire chiefs in the country leading a large metropolitan department – is not actually in control of the project. Although the construction of the locker rooms has funding from a 2012 bond, the construction has been held up by design challenges.

Still, Council members said the project should have been made top priority by multiple departments. Firefighter Nona Allen sued the city in 2008 for discrimination because of the lack of facilities at her station. The lawsuit was decided in the city’s favor. Nonetheless, several City Council members said they have been receiving e-mails from female firefighters, who make up 6 percent of Austin’s fire department. These women are frustrated that the locker rooms are still unfinished although the funding for the project has been secured for four years.

“This is not a response that I’m sure that many of the female firefighters will be happy with,” said Council Member Delia Garza, who herself served as a firefighter in Austin. Garza said she remembers having to lock the door on the men’s locker room when she needed to use it.

The efforts to provide facilities for female firefighters have been in progress since 1999, according to reporting from The Austin Chronicle. The project was divided into six phases. The first four phases, which covered construction for 18 fire stations, have been completed. The city is currently working on phase five, which involves six stations. Design work has been completed for this phase, but construction won’t begin until 2017 at the earliest.

Until then, female firefighters have to use the toilets, showers and changing rooms in the male locker rooms. They often have to wait to use the facilities and then lock the door when they’re inside in order to give themselves privacy.

The $1.5 million project has been complicated by the fact that many of Austin’s fire stations are historical, with some more than a century old.

“It’s basically like taking a home from the 1900s and adding a brand-new bathroom onto it,” Susan Garnett, the public information officer for the Public Works Department, told the Austin Monitor. “Some of them have clay pipes. There are various issues that we come up against.”

But Council members said the project was a matter of respect for the city’s female firefighters. The fact that more than 6 percent of the department’s firefighters are women means Austin has almost double the national average.

“I’m really, really proud of the women who serve the fire department,” said Council Member Leslie Pool. “They do really good work.”

Photo by Kenneth Allen made available through a Creative Commons license.

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