Iowa City Fire Department faces discrimination lawsuit regarding sexism, racism, and homophobia

Sadie McDowell, a former long-time employee at the Iowa City Fire Department, shared alleged accounts of sexism, racism, and homophobia from her former coworkers. The lawsuit is currently under litigation.


Matt Sindt

An Iowa City firetruck is seen at the Iowa City Fire Station 1 Headquarters Oct.12, 2022.

Jami Martin-Trainor, Assistant Digital Editor

The Iowa City Fire Department is currently facing a discrimination lawsuit after former employee Sadie McDowell reported the unit for accounts of sexism, racism, and homophobia.

The trial is currently set for July 30 to Aug. 12, 2024, according to Amy Beck, an attorney working on McDowell’s case.

The official court documents were electronically filed on Aug. 10, 2022. The case is still open and under litigation. As of the time the document was filed, McDowell was technically employed by the Iowa City Fire Department as a firefighter, but she was not being paid and was not allowed to return to work. McDowell said her employment officially ended in January.

In the 19-page lawsuit, McDowell describes the reported discriminatory actions she observed from her colleagues, both directed to her and others.

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This includes officers intentionally looping in the downtown Iowa City area to “ogle young women and comment on their bodies and/or clothing,” which was referred to as the “Lust Lap.”

McDowell also describes a situation that occurred in the summer of 2017 where she faced “unwanted and non-consensual kissing and sexual groping” from a colleague.

In response to these allegations, the Iowa City Fire Department denied all claims made in the lawsuit. In a statement to The Daily Iowan from Lee Hermiston, Iowa City’s public safety information officer, the city’s official reply is limited for legal purposes.

“The City of Iowa City is committed to supporting the rights of all employees and creating a safe, inclusive, and respectful work environment. These are allegations only,” Hermiston stated.

In March 2022, the Iowa City City Council selected a new fire chief to lead the department. Scott Lyon was appointed to the position after McDowell left the force. John Grier was the previous fire chief and held the position for 10 years before retiring in February 2022.

In a previous April 2022 interview with the DI, Lyon said transparency and inclusivity were key to his position when he entered it.

“The diversity and inclusion in Iowa City is something that is very important to me and my family,” Lyon said. “It was an easy fit.

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When the document was filed, four women were employed at the fire department, which was made up of 65 people. As of Feb. 8, the number of women in the Iowa City Fire Department has decreased to one, according to data received by the DI from Hermiston.

The disproportionate number of men and women in emergency services is not limited to the fire department. The number of men sworn into the Iowa City Police department was 69 while the number of women was 11, as of Feb. 8.

Allegations in the document also include instances of racism, homophobia, and transphobia. The document states McDowell reportedly heard a lieutenant say a Black homeless man “was not worth the skin on his bones,” and several coworkers frequently used the word “gay” in a derogatory manner. Other allegations claim the male firefighters would mock transgender individuals and refuse to respect their preferred pronouns and chosen names.

As a whole, McDowell states in the lawsuit that the treatment of herself and others has drastically and negatively impacted her mental health.

“This ordeal has caused Sadie to develop a myriad of debilitating symptoms and mental health conditions including Major Depressive Disorder and Other Trauma and Stressor Related Disorder,” the document reads.