Many of the firefighters at Kalispell, Montana's Evergreen Fire Rescue have personal Instagram accounts where they share photos related to their work. The men are sometimes shirtless, posing proudly in their turndowns (the heavy gear traditionally associated with firefighting) and in front of firetrucks, trumpeting their pride at their profession in between posts relating to their hobbies, friends, and families. Presley Pritchard, a 27-year-old firefighter paramedic, was no different, including photos of herself in uniform mixed in among posts about fitness and workouts she created as a personal trainer.
But eventually, the leadership started to come to her with odd criticisms of her social media—her posts were too racy, she was misusing EFR property by including it in her content. Pritchard had worked at the department for almost two years by the time the complaints began, and tried hard to comply with the conflicting criticisms that her men counterparts never seemed to receive. Then, the day she returned from a leave, her boss told her she was fired for violating a social media policy she said doesn’t exist.
“I'm a good medic, I'm a good firefighter! I've never, ever once been talked to about my actual job,” the 27-year-old told VICE. Pritchard worked at the department for a little less than three years before she was fired. According to Pritchard, while her social media presence was the given reason she lost her job at the fire station, sexism was the real reason her internet activity was such a persistent problem—which is why she filed a wrongful termination claim in December, as first reported by the Daily Inter Lake.
Pritchard’s content was (and is), for the most part, the straightforward stuff fitness influencer accounts are made of, with a gentle Great Plains twist. Her personal posts were mixed in with published sponsored posts in partnership with wellness brands, but the latter never overlapped with her work as a firefighter. In most of the photos and videos she shares with her 87,000 followers (as of January 2020), she wears tank tops, sports bras, and leggings, usually while at the gym, and a pair of wireless, rose gold Beats headphones. In a few posts, she totes a gun or poses in snowboarding gear. In her captions, she espouses perseverance, positivity, and the power of Jesus.
A good portion of her content related to her primary profession: photos in uniform, videos of firefighter-oriented workouts, every post accompanied by an inspirational caption. “God has placed on your heart a special passion area where you feel a burning desire to do something. This is your calling. And Somebody, somewhere is depending on you to do what God has called you to do,” reads one, underneath a photo of Pritchard in her turnouts, the heavy, protective gear firefighters wear out on call. “I've never posted one photo that was even remotely unprofessional,” she said. She said she routinely asked for and received permission (VICE saw screenshots of one such conversation) before posting photos of herself in uniform, and complied with the fire department’s earlier request to blur out their logo when she did take pictures at the station. (The Evergreen Fire District declined multiple requests for comment from VICE, with Evergreen Fire District Board Chairman Brodie Verworn citing the ongoing legal proceedings.)
Apparently, some Kalispell residents disagreed. Following a spat with an Evergreen Fire District board member who claimed a “concerned citizen” contacted him about Pritchard’s social media activity in July 2018, she estimates she was reprimanded around 20 times for her social media content. She said her superiors scolded her for what she wore to work out at her personal gym, what she wore to work out at the fire station, and how she looked in the uniform she was required to wear on shift.
“It was just ongoing—they would call me in for everything,” she said. “It was just always like walking on eggshells there.” After someone complained that her standard-issue women’s pants were too provocative, she said the department came up with a solution: “I actually got issued men's uniform pants. So I was like wow, fine, I'll wear men's pants! Are you serious? Am I supposed to leave my butt at home?”
Pritchard told VICE that much of the “offensive” material was similar to the kind of content her male colleagues posted, and provided screenshots of a male firefighter from her department in uniform, shirtless, along with hashtags promoting fitness products similar to those she was repeatedly chastised for. The difference was her appearance and gender. She also showed VICE screenshots of a coworker’s Facebook comments advocating for an “unused mass grave” in front of the proposed border wall between the United States and Mexico, and one expressly stating: “Sandy Hook Was Fake.” She said her coworker was not disciplined for (or even spoken to about) those remarks.
Although she wasn’t the only woman at EFR, Pritchard said she was typically the sole woman on her shift, and that other women in the station tended to be there on a volunteer basis. “I didn't realize how common [sexism] was because I never had anyone to talk to when I was going through all of it,” she said. This scarcity reflects the latest numbers: Of the 1 million firefighters active in the U.S. as of 2017, only 7 percent of them were women. And per the same poll, only 4 percent of the 373,600 career firefighters were women.
“It's just really, really hypocritical,” she said. “It just sucks, because you see firefighters out here with these sexy firefighter calendars, and if females did that, they would literally be like, beaten to death. Everyone would call them sluts and whores. But it's OK for guys, just like how it was OK for every guy in my department to have photos of themselves at training.”
Pritchard was fired from her job as a firefighter paramedic on August 15, 2019. According to Pritchard, Covington told her the reason she was being fired was that she’d left photos of herself in uniform (which she said she received permission to post in advance) and content relating to her work as a firefighter paramedic up on her Instagram account after being asked to remove them within a five-day window. She said she chose not to remove the posts after speaking with a lawyer, who told her that legally, she didn’t have to do so—because a “standard social media policy” for the department was never substantiated in writing anywhere, or fully communicated to the staff.
Pritchard said EFR has since claimed that she made money using the fire station’s facilities and uniform to promote her side business, in an effort to block her from receiving unemployment benefits. Pritchard vehemently denies this, and said she provided the department with letters from the brands she works with, stating that they only sponsored specific posts on her feed, all of which were unrelated to the department: “I'd be freaking rich if I made money from every post... They probably should have looked into how social media works before they say that, because it just makes them look really, really, really stupid.” (VICE also saw the letters from the brands.)
Pritchard believes she was fired for sexist reasons. She denied that her social media presence “denigrated” the department’s reputation. And if a photo of a woman in workout clothes at the gym or in her work-issued uniform is enough to damage a fire department’s reputation, Pritchard argues, then her fellow firefighters should be held to the same standard. She said it’s clear to her that she was targeted because she is a young, conventionally attractive woman in a male-dominated field.
If everything Pritchard said is true—and, again, EFR refused to confirm or even comment on any of these basic facts—then it's clear EFR couldn't get its story straight about what the problem with Pritchard's instagram account actually was; its leadership variously criticized her posts about firefighting, as well as her posts totally unrelated to firefighting. She said she was accused of posting photos from the scene of an accident, using fire district resources for her own business ventures, posing provocatively at the gym and at the fire station, and making money off of content she has proof was not sponsored. Yet the department appears to have not reprimanded the men on its staff, whose content would also have run afoul of many of the supposed social media standards—if those standards were being equally applied.
She also said that she’s far from the only female firefighter to deal with this kind of treatment. “Everybody knows that's how the fire service is, and the military, and law enforcement, when you're in it,” she said. “I get messages every single day from girls who are like, ‘I'm harassed every single day, all the guys are always saying they don't think I can do my job, they're always making fun of me, they're always making remarks about how my butt looks in my uniform.’”
In December, Pritchard filed wrongful termination and sexual discrimination claims against EFR, on the grounds that her behavior on social media doesn’t qualify as a fireable offense. It’s a claim the state of Montana has, in one way, already affirmed—in the wake of her dismissal, Pritchard was eventually granted the unemployment she filed for. EFR appealed the ruling four times, and all four times, state officials ruled in Pritchard’s favor.
Despite the setbacks, Pritchard remains passionate about being a paramedic, and about personal training, and remains firm in her belief that she can do both. Now, she’s studying for her flight paramedic test and continuing to talk about what she experienced, so that other women going through the same thing feel a little less alone than she did. “It's really important that somebody stands up for it and speaks out, and I don't really care! I'm like, say whatever you want, I have thick skin,” Pritchard said. “Others don't.”
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.