Hackett’s lawsuit against VIFR heads to trial today

Court documents suggest volunteer firefighter Lanora Hackett and two other female firefighters at Vashon Island Fire & Rescue (VIFR) were treated hostilely, hazed by their male counterparts and passed over for jobs by an administration that did nothing to alter the department’s all-male culture.

Documents filed by the fire department, however, paint a very different picture — suggesting Hackett was difficult to work with, mishandled situations and lost out to two men who had better attitudes and a vaster array of experience.

Hackett, an active Islander and the mother of two, is suing the fire department for its decision to not hire her for a firefighting position despite the fact that she was the top scorer in the department’s objective tests and an active volunteer who responded to more calls than any other volunteer. The suit is scheduled to go to trial today, after attempts at mediation failed and the fire department lost its bid to have portions of the case dismissed, court records show.

Neither Seattle lawyer Kathy Goater, who is representing Hackett, nor Michael Bolasina, the fire department’s Seattle-based lawyer, would comment about the case. Hackett, who according to a past news report was seeking $2 million in damages, also would not comment.

But reams of court documents — including briefs prepared for today’s scheduled trial — provide a window into the Vashon fire department, its sometimes tough culture and the divisions that pit career firefighters against volunteers and the more highly trained paramedics against the EMTs.

According to briefs and other documents filed by Hackett’s lawyer, the volunteer firefighter was not only twice passed over for a job unfairly but experienced a severely hostile work environment that top officials did nothing to alleviate and that ultimately left her depressed and anxious.

“She has endured outright hostility from some who have made statements that she should not get the job because she is a mom, she couldn’t pull them out of a fire, and she is not trustworthy because she sued VIFR,” Goater wrote in her brief. “Career paramedics, who don’t share the viewpoint of firefighters (EMTs), observed hostility toward Ms. Hackett, confronted those who were participating and reported the conduct to the acting chief. The chief did nothing to intervene.”

Some firefighters refused to speak to her, according to the brief. In one instance, a firefighter nearly backed over her with a fire engine, the brief alleged. In other instances, she was treated badly by her colleagues at medical calls, where her judgment was called into question or where her input about patients was ignored.

The brief also describes a fire station where some firefighters made inappropriate comments about women, had screen-savers on their computers depicting scantily clad women and watched R-rated movies with sexually explicit scenes.

In some instances, others confirmed Hackett’s observations, the brief says. One time, for instance, she was the first to respond to aid a child who had severely cut his leg. When career firefighters arrived on the scene, however, “they ignored her and froze her out of the response” — a behavior the child’s relatives observed as well, the brief says.

“Purportedly, an investigation was conducted and acting chief (Mike) Kirk determined the career crew acted unprofessionally,” the brief said. “No action has been taken against those involved.”

But Bolasina, hired by the fire department’s insurance pool to represent VIFR, refuted several of Goater’s allegations. The firefighter who started to back up a truck when Hackett was behind it didn’t know she was there, he wrote. Jason Everett, another firefighter, witnessed the incident and “was stunned that (Hackett) would consider this incident an attempt to harm her,” the fire department’s brief states.

Bolasina also said what Hackett took as gender-based hostility stemmed, in some instances, from the sometimes contentious culture of a department staffed by both volunteers and career firefighters. Career staff are sometimes sharp with volunteers and expect volunteers to be somewhat deferential to them, the brief said.

“With (Hackett), the old problem is exacerbated by tensions caused by (her) propensity to believe that her judgment and skills are superior to those of most career staff,” the fire department’s lawyer argued.

Hank Lipe, who took over the reins of the department six months ago, did not return calls to his office; David Hoffman, who chairs the fire department board, also did not return a call.

But Gayle Sommers, reached at home, said she believes the fire department has a strong case. Even so, she added, she wished the case had been settled because of the possibility that a large judgment against the department might not be covered fully by its insurance.

“I know that insurance would cover at least a portion of the verdict; how much I don’t know,” she said. “That certainly is a concern.”

Commissioner Neal Philip concurred.

“A big verdict could be unfortunate,” he said.

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