Assistant fire chief sues Orlando, former chief alleging gender discrimination, harassment

OFD firefighter says discriminatory behavior has continued under new leadership

ORLANDO, Fla. – A veteran firefighter with the Orlando Fire Department is suing the city and the former fire chief alleging gender discrimination and sexual harassment.

Former Orlando Fire Chief Roderick Williams resigned in February 2019 after the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission determined Williams and two deputy chiefs discriminated against a female employee. That employee, assistant fire chief Dawn Sumter, filed a lawsuit against the department and Williams Tuesday and is seeking a jury trial.

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Sumter alleges she was subjected to differential treatment, threatening and harassing conduct by the two current deputy chiefs. She said Williams denied her the opportunity to be considered for a promotion to deputy chief in favor of two less qualified employees.

According to the lawsuit, Sumter was fully qualified to be promoted but during William’s tenure, she was not considered or interviewed. Sumter went to HR with her complaints but the lawsuit alleges HR “refused to investigate.”

Sumter, who has been employed with OFD since 1993, also claims she was subjected to unwanted sexual harassment.

The lawsuit outlines several allegations including that Williams would hug Sumter and make inappropriate comments to her, including telling her she was “sexy” and that he wished she wasn’t married.

After the EEOC investigation, Sumter was transferred from field operations to EMS, a “less prestigious position” within the department, according to the lawsuit. She went from supervising more than 150 firefighters to nine people.

Sumter said following reporting sexual harassment and then the EEOC investigation, she faced retaliation from Williams and others within OFD, including being excluded from conferences, leadership roles and training.

According to the lawsuit, the prevalent behavior and discrimination against women within OFD have continued under the new fire chief. Benjamin Barksdale Jr. was officially sworn in as Orlando Fire Department’s newest fire chief in December 2019.

In his first months as chief, Barksdale spoke of his vision to create a “culture of respect.”

“From what I’ve heard this far, change is wanted,” Barksdale said on Dec. 2, 2019. “Change is absolutely wanted from the way things were done in the past.”

As recently as this month, Sumter participated in a gift exchange at an OFD station and experienced some of this culture the lawsuit describes as problematic. The gift she randomly selected was a book that included foul language about the male anatomy and a bottle of male enhancement pills called “Max Load.”

The lawsuit alleges that despite Williams no longer leading OFD, the discriminatory and retaliatory acts against Sumter have continued.

Sumter is demanding lost wages and benefits, along with damages and attorney fees. Had she been promoted, it would’ve included a 15% pay raise.

The Orlando Fire Department released a statement in response to the lawsuit Wednesday morning.

“The City of Orlando has not been served. However, one of our core values at the City of Orlando is to ensure that everyone who works here is treated with dignity and respected in the workplace.

We hold our Orlando firefighters to the highest professional standards and refuse to accept the male-dominated culture that exists in firehouses across the country. To ensure the women within the department have a voice, department-wide forums were conducted which lead to the creation of the OFD Inclusivity and Equity Action Plan.

The goal of the Action Plan was to develop benchmarks and strategies for strengthening the diversity of OFD and implementing professional standards and policies that encourage a more welcoming environment that is reflective of our community.

Through the Action Plan, some of the new initiatives implemented in the last year include:

  • Changes to the OFD recruitment team and civil service testing process.
  • Improvements in the design of new fire stations - Individual crew bunk rooms, showers, and restrooms to accommodate and promote privacy in the workplace. This includes a new lactation room for nursing mothers. Similar renovations will be implemented at Station 10 with private facilities for women and a lactation room.
  • Increased diversity in the first new hire class under Chief Barksdale - Class 0620 was the largest class for the Orlando Fire Department at 32 members. Of this class, 59% were of either Asian, Black or Hispanic ethnicity. 12% were female.
  • In addition, a civilian investigator was hired to handle internal affairs, with an office outside of OFD headquarters to maximize confidentiality.

We remain committed to driving a culture that embraces inclusion and diversity and to setting the standard for representation of women in the fire department,” the statement read.