Retired firefighter speaks out about suing department over discrimination and harassment
FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WPTA) - A retired Fort Wayne firefighter is suing the department saying she experienced discrimination and harassment while on the force because she’s a woman.
Holly Volz says, at first, being a firefighter was a dream.
“I’ve had great experiences, so much fun, so much fun,” Volz said.
She joined the Fort Wayne Fire Department in 1986 making her way to captain in 1996. But about four years ago she says her dream job became a nightmare.
“I spent my entire career 30 plus years. The worst thing you can do is say to a firefighter, especially out loud, `` you’re not competent, you can’t do this job. I had spent thirty years every day proving that,” Volz said.
It happened in 2017, Volz was on the scene of a fire at the Canterbury Green Apartments. She says Deputy Chief Adam O’Connor joined her there shortly after.
“I was reaching in my pocket. I was bending over to reach in my pocket and that is when basically he told me ‘what the hell are you doing?’ He says, ‘I don’t even want you here, I want someone who can do this job you can’t do this job’,” Volz said.
She was devastated and embarrassed. She says in her 30 years in the department no one had ever spoken to her like that.
“Everything I had worked for for 30 years he had taken away from me he did this in front of other fire department crews, he did this in front of civilians, in front of police officers. How am I supposed to continue to command with being completely humiliated in front of all of those people,” Volz said.
In that moment Volz knew she wanted to file a complaint against O’Connor. At first, her supervisors warned her that doing this would result in retaliation from her higher ups, but she pushed on.
“Prior to the investigation beginning, our union president Jeremy Bush had tried to have a talk with Chief Lahey about some of the things that were going on hoping to settle things. And I was told then by Jeremy that Adam had referred to myself and other people that had filed complaints ‘what do those whiny pretty nasty word..what do they want now’,” Volz said.
Volz’s case is at least the third federal lawsuit filed against the Fort Wayne Fire Department in the last decade-alleging some form of discrimination. In 2018, Elbert Starks, a Black man, filed a complaint claiming he was subjected to racially hostile comments from co-workers.
In 2016, Victoria Bolden, who was apart of the fire academy at the time, claims officials at the academy told her she would be held under “scrutiny because of her sex”. After she graduated from the academy she was fired. Bolden believes it was because she was the only woman in her class. Both of these cases were settled outside of court.
“In this particular instance I do believe that Adam O’Connor did this because I was female. There’s no way he would’ve ever talked to a male officer on the scene of a building fire like that,” Volz said.
As for Volz, she says it took Metropolitan Human Relations over a year before they really began investigating her case. In August of 2020, they began talking to witnesses but Volz says out of all of the people she named only two came forward.
“I was taught when I came on the fire department by some really fantastic firefighters and officers that there was a pride and a brotherhood and I lived that for my entire career I believed in it but when it was my turn to receive that everybody scattered,” Volz said.
Volz’s nightmare continued to get worse. As her witnesses were interviewed she received what she calls an extortion letter from O’Connor’s lawyers demanding she pay him $350,000 or she’d be sued. Volz says O’Connor believes because she went public with her story it cost him the role of chief.
“The situation is, I only told the truth as I knew it. Any defamation of character he did to himself,” Volz said.
Despite all of the push back Volz is going forward with her case against the department. Saying she’s going through all of this so no one else has to ever again.
“I want better for the fire department. They deserve better. There are some men on the fire department currently that would be fantastic chiefs. There are other options this does not have to be the way that it is,” Volz said.
And she has this to say to other women who may be in similar situations.
“It’s going to be rough but it’s going to be rough anywhere. But as long as you are dedicated and you love the job you’re doing and you’re brave you’re gonna succeed. You just have to make sure that the people around you are giving you the benefit of that success,” Volz said.
ABC21 should note a correction. In the on air version we stated the EEOC did not find any discriminatory behavior in their investigation and that is false. EEOC did rule in Volz’s favor.
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