Rocky River Burning 

A suburb's lone female firefighter claims sexual harassment -- and sets the department ablaze.

After tales of Playboys and porn channels, of jealous husbands and betrayed colleagues, of blowjobs and babies, the conclusion to civil case No. 426655 arrived -- to no one's surprise -- with a fitting bout of weirdness.

The old courthouse on Lakeside Avenue was nearly deserted on a Friday afternoon when the jury filed into Judge James M. Porter's courtroom to render its verdict. The eight-member panel had arrived to pass judgment on the matter of Sandra Lavelle v. the City of Rocky River, a sexual harassment claim brought by the western suburb's only female firefighter.

For years, Lavelle claimed, city officials had allowed a sexually hostile environment to fester inside the fire department: She was ridiculed with crude nicknames. Adult magazines were allowed to pile up throughout the firehouse. Fellow employees watched porn on television during their shifts.

City officials countered with their own list of complaints. The real motivation behind the suit had nothing to do with sexual harassment, they argued. After all, Lavelle had been on the job for more than a decade before deciding to complain. This was just her way of forcing the city to institute a "light duty" policy, so she could work while pregnant.

The trial lasted nearly two weeks, as Lavelle's friends, colleagues, bosses, and doctors offered testimony on almost every aspect of her life: her performance on the job, her dating history, her visits to a psychologist.

It was brutal business, with plenty of grimace-inducing moments. At one point during cross-examination, Lavelle was asked: "Did you ever tell Lisa Schaefer her husband had a nice ass?"

Now, finally, it was over. Judge Porter thumbed through the verdict sheets and summoned lawyers to the bench. After a few moments, Susannah Muskovitz, Lavelle's attorney, looked up at her client and gave a slight smile.

Sitting in the front row of the gallery, Lavelle's husband whispered loudly: "Did my attorney just smile at my wife?"

Yet the jury would split the verdict. Lavelle lost on her claims of sexual discrimination, but the jury ruled that Rocky River retaliated against her after the suit was filed. Lavelle was awarded $325,000.

Whatever the claims of the suit, whatever the result, it was never just about magazines and maternity leave. The city may have been the defendant, but no one doubted who or what was really being judged. As former fire Captain Irv Hodson explained to Muskovitz: "Ma'am, as far as I'm concerned, the whole fire service is on trial."

That it would take a lawsuit to force the department to address sexual harassment is of no surprise -- at least to anyone familiar with firefighting. With its physical requirements and prospects of danger, the profession has always cultivated a tribal identity. "People like to think of it as a family," says Lavelle.

To many, it is a lifestyle more than a job, and fire departments have long been slow to accept the strictures of other professions. For years, fire services across the country were infamous for their efforts to fight affirmative action. In the last 20 years, the International Association of Fire Fighters has been one of the country's most active organizations in filing reverse-discrimination lawsuits.

And with the exception of the priesthood and bullfighting, no occupation has remained so attached to the Y chromosome. It wasn't until 1974 that the U.S. had its first full-time firewoman. While the number of women has grown in the last 27 years, it has been at a glacial pace. There are just over 6,000 women in the profession today -- less than 2 percent of all firefighters, according to Women in Fire Service Inc., the only group that tracks such numbers. Of the 11,000 members in the vaunted Fire Department of New York, fewer than 40 are women.

"It's been much more difficult for women to break into the fire service than to other nontraditional jobs, including police," says Muskovitz. "I think it's the nature of the fire service."

Sandra Lavelle didn't plan to be a pioneer. She simply wanted a decent job. In 1988, her oldest sister went into a coma after getting into a serious auto accident on I-90. Over the next six weeks, as Sandra hoped for a recovery, she learned about paramedics' extraordinary efforts to save her sister's life.

At the time, she was working as a clerk at a small grocery store on Lorain Road, down the street from the North Olmsted Fire Department. Every day, as the sirens whined and the trucks roared past, she would think of her sister. The recovery never came. Pat Wolfe died six weeks after her accident.

By the spring of 1989, Lavelle had completed paramedic school when she learned that Rocky River would be offering a civil service exam. Of the 300-odd people to take the written test, she received the second-highest score. Over the next six months, she navigated a maze of additional tests: a physical agility test, a background check, a psychological evaluation, and an interview. That November, she became the first woman firefighter in Rocky River.

When she told her father, he had one piece of advice: "Don't screw up."

It was obvious Lavelle wasn't just another new hire. After she got the job, Chief Jack Gerson called to say the city's safety-service director, Don Umerley, wanted to meet her. It was a short meeting. Umerley made but one comment, Lavelle recalls, and it wasn't addressed to her. "She'll do," he told Gerson.

Lavelle had little trouble assimilating into the station's clubhouse vibe. The seventh of nine kids, she was used to the odd rhythms of a close-knit group, and she soon came to feel accepted by most of her colleagues. "It was a pleasant environment," she says. "Especially the older guys, now retired -- they were exceptionally nice to me."

It helped that Lavelle could hold her own. In an atmosphere where people are constantly teased and tested, where wise-ass put-downs are the de facto form of communication, she wasn't afraid to take a stand, to express an opinion, to tell a stupid joke. Once, sick of fellow firefighter Erwin Miske's cigars, she found a syringe, filled it with water, and injected it into the tobacco so it couldn't be lit. In 1992, when she went on vacation to Florida with her then-fiancé, a Lakewood paramedic, she sent a postcard back to the station. On the front was a picture of a woman in a bikini. On the back, Lavelle wrote: "I let Tom take this picture of me. What do you guys think?"

"She was part of the group," remembered firefighter Jerry Cahill, who would become one of her best friends in the department. "She had a good sense of humor."

In this realm of familial closeness, she came to fill an obvious role: "I always had the impression that Sandy was the sister to the brothers at the fire department," said Lisa Schaefer, a friend of Lavelle's who is married to a firefighter. She was quickly tagged with a nickname: Marlo -- after actress Marlo Thomas from the TV show That Girl. When she broke up with a boyfriend, the guys on her shift helped move her stuff out of his house. When she graduated from nursing school in 1997, her shift sent her a bouquet of flowers.

If anything, some men in the department felt Lavelle could be too open. She sometimes described her social life in detail. Fellow firefighters would later recall her telling them the best places she'd had sex or problems she was having in her relationships. Said Hodson: "I always felt she was a little too willing to discuss her personal life."

It was a trait that was used against her repeatedly at trial. One firefighter, Neil Wojciechowski, seemed called solely to testify about one conversation he had with Lavelle years before -- about blowjobs. "She seemed to act just like one of the guys," he said. "She fit right in."

It helped that Lavelle loved the work. The pay was good, the hours even better. And though there was always the prospect of danger, it was rare for the department to see more than one big blaze a year. Mostly it was small fires, false alarms, and paramedic calls.

But there was a draw that came from more than a paycheck. "In most jobs, it takes a long time before you can see the difference you make," she says. In the fire department, as a paramedic, "You can really see when you do something good for somebody."

She remembers helping a woman choking at an Arby's. As she walked in, people were standing around, waiting for help. Lavelle performed the Heimlich maneuver. It was one of the simplest things she could do, yet it saved the woman's life. "It's just instant gratification, helping somebody like that."

Later, when every aspect of her life would be peeled like an onion, examined for defects, her dedication to the job was never questioned. "She always gave everything that she had," Hodson would recall. "She did very well."

Echoed former Chief Gerson, the man who hired her: "I was really proud of Sandy. She was one of my success stories. She made me look good."

But the work, she found, was the easy part. Harder to deal with was the colleague who suggested a threesome with his wife. Or the superior who would call her "pelt" to her face. She didn't even know what it meant until she asked her then-fiancé. "It's the same as calling you a cunt," he told her. When the same guy called her "gash," she figured it out on her own.

It wasn't just the comments. From the day she arrived, Playboy and Penthouse were fixtures of the firehouse. Kept mostly in the bathroom, they would sometimes find their way to other parts of the station.

Lavelle was loath to complain. She saw what could happen if she did. Around the same time she was hired, the city hired a firefighter who had almost become a priest. He wasn't comfortable with the pornography. But when he threw some of the magazines out, another firefighter confronted him. "A guy got in his face, saying how it was private property," recalls Lavelle.

After the incident, it seemed the new firefighter could do no right. He was terminated before the end of his two-year probation period. At trial, other firefighters scoffed at the notion that he was pushed out for his aversion to Playboy. Gerson said the man was simply ill suited to the job. "He just didn't seem to catch on to firefighting skills."

To Lavelle, there was a different lesson to be learned: "Don't rock the boat."

Over the nine days of testimony, one thing was hard to miss: If Lavelle was the victim of sexual harassment, it wasn't evident in her work. During her 12 years in the department, she was never denied pay or promotion, or even formally disciplined.

If anything, she was a model employee. In 1994, at age 24, she decided she wanted to be a lieutenant. For months, preparation for the exam was like a second job. She would get up each morning and study for hours, reading fire technology books, command manuals -- anything she could find. "I didn't have a husband, a family. I didn't have any distractions."

When the test was administered, only 6 of the 16 people who took it passed. Lavelle was one of them. It would be two and a half years before a spot would open up. Even so, when she was promoted to lieutenant in 1997, she was among the youngest members of the department to ever attain the rank.

The day she was promoted, Lavelle was moved to a different shift -- standard department policy, so that new lieutenants won't have to supervise people they've worked with. Almost immediately, she felt a difference in attitude, a sense of hostility she never felt before. The language around the firehouse -- never demure -- was particularly harsh, especially about women.

Lavelle came to feel it was calculated. "I think some of the firefighters enjoyed getting a rise out of me," she would recall at trial. There were comments about women on television, about girls on the street. One firefighter was known to remark about the "cans" on high school girls. When Lavelle told her co-workers she didn't like the word "jism," they stopped using it. Then they mocked her for it, joking about the "j-word."

Lavelle's uneasiness was compounded by the magazines, which seemed to proliferate during her tenure. Yet when she complained to Fire Chief Christopher Flynn, she says, nothing changed. "I would say something about it, and he would say, 'Yeah, I'll handle it,' but then nothing would happen."

(In his own testimony, Flynn recalled speaking to Lavelle about the magazines. Her comments, however, were only about how it would look bad if the public saw the magazines, he said.)

There was also the cable. Years before, when Cox Cable wired Rocky River, the contract required the company to provide service to municipal buildings for free, including premium channels such as HBO, Showtime, and Cinemax. By the mid-'90s, however, public entities were no longer allowed to receive premium services, even if they offered to pay for them.

The firefighters, who often viewed movies while on watch duty in the middle of the night, didn't want to give up the premium services. So they came up with a simple solution: They'd steal them. "We figured, okay, it's right there, let's decode it," Chief Flynn explained at trial. The descrambled cable provided everything from HBO and Cinemax to pay-per-view movies and the Spice and Playboy channels.

All of it -- the language, the magazines, the cable porn -- undermined Lavelle's authority, she believed. Some firefighters seemed to take joy in defying her. One was repeatedly insubordinate. When she would complain to her superiors about the behavior, however, "It always fell on deaf ears," she says.

At the same time, Lavelle was increasingly focused on another issue: what to do if she were to have a baby. The job's physical demands meant she'd be effectively sidelined as a firefighter from the day she became pregnant. The citywide maternity policy, however, allowed for six months' leave. When Lavelle had asked about the policy before, both Gerson and Jack Kraus, who served as chief from 1994 to '97, said they would probably give her "light duty" during any pregnancy, most likely working in the fire-prevention office. But there was no formal directive.

When she talked to Director of Public Safety-Service Don Umerley about the issue in the early '90s, she recalled in court testimony, he asked: "You're not pregnant yet, are you?"

"No," she said.

"We'll deal with that when we come to it."

By the spring of 2000, it was no longer an academic discussion. Earlier that year, she had started dating John Lavelle, an Olmsted Township fireman. By summer, the two were living together, and they planned to be married the following spring.

When Lavelle would ask Flynn about the maternity policy, he would tell her that the city didn't have light duty. She should save up her sick time: "The minute I find out you're pregnant, I'm sending you home," he repeatedly told her. When she told him he couldn't do that -- it would be illegal -- he responded, "Yes, I can."

By that fall, Lavelle's frustrations were converging -- the magazines, the cable, her aggravation about the absence of a maternity policy. In mid-November, she went to Lieutenant George Kraus, head of the firefighters' union. Kraus promised to speak to Flynn.

The reply was less than inspired. The chief was looking into the maternity policy, Lavelle was told. The magazines would be boxed up, but not removed. And the cable would stay, at least for the time being. Removing it, Flynn told Kraus, "would make 27 others unhappy."

Six weeks later, Lavelle filed her lawsuit.

She became radioactive to her co-workers. It wasn't just because she sued the department. It was the claims she was making, the embarrassing details about language, pornography. "She made us look like 28 lecherous old men," George Kraus would recall.

Even those who knew the suit was coming felt betrayed. A few days before it was filed, Sandra and John Lavelle called Jerry Cahill, a close friend at the department, to tip him off. According to Cahill, however, both said the suit was merely supposed to be a "tool" to get a light-duty policy. The sexual harassment stuff was just an "end around" to accomplish those goals, Cahill said in court. "I told her I supported her."

When he saw the actual complaint, however, Cahill was floored. "I felt like I'd been lied to."

At the firehouse, the reaction was swift and total. When Lavelle would walk into the day room, everyone else would get up and leave. If she'd sit down in the kitchen, everyone would go to another room. But for discussing patients during ambulance runs, nobody spoke to her. On the computer in the watch office, the screen saver was changed to read "Pulp Fiction." Later, it was changed again. "Show me the money," it said.

"I knew it was going to piss a lot of people off," says Lavelle. "But I thought the fact that I was seeking a light-duty policy, which would benefit everyone, would cushion the blow."

The city's response only made things worse. Upon learning of the allegations, Don Umerley, who was then mayor, ordered a criminal investigation. Rocky River Police detectives confiscated the cable boxes and questioned every member of the fire department -- a move that heightened the vitriol toward Lavelle. "I would say she was the point of blame," George Kraus admitted at trial.

The tension went beyond hard feelings. Lavelle felt cut off from essential information. In February, when a firefighter got into a car accident during his shift, Lavelle wasn't told for hours, despite being one of the officers on duty. A month later, when Rocky River's 911 system wasn't functioning properly, no one said a word.

Complaining seemed to make matters worse. In April, when she wrote a memo detailing her concerns, shift Captain Carl Kalkbrenner became furious. Such complaints were normally handled through informal meetings, he reminded her. He felt she was playing "gotcha."

"I can play the same game, too," he said.

Over the next several months, the isolation only deepened. Firefighters were told that Lavelle was keeping a log of what happened -- which was true -- and to watch what they said to her. So few said anything.

City administrators decided to play their part, too. In August, they enlisted the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center to provide three days of gender sensitivity training to the fire department. There was one problem with the plan: The crisis center was never notified that the department was the subject of a sexual harassment lawsuit, and the sessions only amped up tension. At trial, when asked what he gleaned from the training, firefighter Aaron Lenart responded, "That all men are rapists."

Lavelle felt she had a bull's-eye on her back. The same day the trainers spoke to her shift, she received several written complaints for various incidents that had taken place over the previous months. One was for not carrying her radio inside a hospital after an ambulance run; another was for being a minute late to work.

After providing a response to the write-ups, reiterating her concerns about the lack of communication, Lavelle received a letter from Director of Public Safety-Service James Linden. "I would remind you that the fire division is not a social club," it read. "No one can be forced to speak to you."

Several city officials did not want to talk about the lawsuit. Repeated calls to Linden and Law Director David Matty were not returned. Mayor William Knoble, who took the post six months ago, is adamant in his support of Rocky River's safety services. "We have a very, very fine fire department," he says. "This is an extremely unfortunate situation. I have files full of commendations about the work of firemen and paramedics . . . I am steadfast in my high appraisal of the firefighters, paramedics that we have. I think they do a terrific job."

Still, it's hard to see how things could get any worse for the city. Its foundering at trial was not for lack of a compelling argument. After all, whatever disquiet Lavelle harbored about magazines and porn channels, no one could remember her complaining much about it. "We never discussed the magazines," said Lieutenant Buzz Seiple, whom Lavelle dated for more than a year in the late '90s.

"I don't remember them ever being mentioned," said Gerson.

And rather than suffer, Lavelle thrived in the department. She had been promoted to lieutenant when she was 28. She had never been formally disciplined, suspended, or docked pay. Her salary was -- and still is -- $57,000 a year.

Yet Lavelle's treatment, especially after she filed suit, could hardly be considered enlightened. Linden admitted that the department violated the city's sexual harassment policy. Not that he was particularly concerned about Lavelle's well-being. Last summer, when tension between Lavelle and her co-workers was at its zenith, he met with at least nine firefighters to talk about Lavelle. The meetings were "informational," Linden testified, though he couldn't recall anyone saying a single positive thing about her.

His testimony set the tone for much of the city's case. Chief Flynn admitted that he had been putting negative comments in Lavelle's personnel file for years, yet never told her about them. He said they were simply "memory-joggers." He also testified that he knew the cable descramblers were illegal. "We weren't hurting anybody," he said.

In the end, the jury delivered the only verdict it could: Lavelle's treatment, in the eyes of the law, didn't rise to sexual harassment. Her job, at least in any quantitative way, had never really suffered -- a critical component to proving harassment. Yet there clearly had been retaliation after she filed the complaint.

After the verdict, a retired firefighter walked in the sunshine outside the courthouse, still uncomprehending. "Oh man, it's a great job," he said, lighting a cigarette. "That's what I didn't understand. Why would you want to mess that up?"

A week later, sitting at the kitchen table in her Olmsted Township house, Lavelle looks likes she's asked herself the same question more than once. She has one conclusion: It wasn't worth it. She lost every friend in the department. She was, at various times during trial, portrayed as a liar, a slut, and a drama queen. And though she could return to her job, she seems to know she never will. "I think it would just be too hard."

She is expecting a baby in the fall, and she has a job offer as an ER nurse if she wants it. Despite everything that's happened, Lavelle says she will miss the camaraderie of a firehouse. She looks down at the table. "There is such pride that goes with being a firefighter . . ." she says, as her voice trails off.


More by Andrew Putz


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