Desiree Horton was the first full-time female helicopter pilot in the history of the Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA), an agency with only around 2% women firefighters. She was hired in 2019, and fired in 2020.
In June of this year, she filed a lawsuit against OCFA seeking her job back, and stating that her termination was sex discrimination. The lawsuit is ongoing.
Horton has over 30 years of experience as a pilot, having worked as an aerial reporter for various Southern California news stations, and for over 15 years as an aerial firefighter. In 2019, she joined the OCFA, working out of Station 41 at the Fullerton Airport. She thought it would be her dream job.
According to the lawsuit filed in Orange County Superior Court, during Horton’s time at the OCFA, she was held to unfair and higher standards than her male counterparts, deprived of training opportunities offered to the male fire pilots, unfairly evaluated without proper training and often with little or no advance notice, lied to about the conditions of her passing probation, and forced to work in a hostile environment in which she was ignored, undermined, disrespected, disparaged, and made to feel as though she was incompetent.
The lawsuit states, “the OCFA failed Ms. Horton after her one-year probationary period and without the required one-year evaluation flight, wrongfully claiming her performance was ‘sub standard’ and that she was essentially untrainable.”
The Observer reached out to OCFA for their side of the story, but a spokesperson said they were unable to comment on ongoing litigation.
Horton, her lawyers, and other advocates held a virtual press conference back in June, in which they explained the case.
“It was such an honor and a privilege to serve Orange County as a first responder, but OCFA didn’t see it that way,” Horton said. “I was set up to fail and I was never given the opportunity to succeed. It was clear to me that women weren’t wanted at OCFA.”
Lauren Andrade, a fire captain at OCFA, supports Horton in her fight to get her job back and to challenge the culture of the organization.
“I wish I could sit here today and say this is the first I’d heard of a probationary employee being discriminated against for their sex or race, but unfortunately that’s far from the truth,” Andrade said at the press conference. “OCFA has a pattern of discrimination against underrepresented groups. Either they’re weeded out in the hiring process, or they’re fired during their probationary year.”
“17 of our 77 fire stations currently don’t have women’s restrooms or shower facilities to accommodate a dual gender workforce,” Andrade said. “We have no women chief officers, and up until Desiree we had no women assigned full time to our Air Operations division.”
Jenna Rangel, an attorney representing Horton, said that although Horton had more experience than her male colleagues, “because there was no objective metrics that could be applied equally to all fire pilots, the OCFA was able to hold Desiree to higher standards than the men, and to terminate her by wrongfully claiming her performance was sub-standard.”
“People have asked me why I’m doing this. The answer is simple—I want my job back. Let me fly,” Horton said. “And I want the OCFA to be a changed department, one in which women and underrepresented groups are given the fair shake we deserve.”
Fire pilots like Desiree are tasked with transporting firefighters to the front lines, aerial firefighting with precise water drops while hovering at low levels above the blaze, and engaging in search and rescue missions.
Friends and supporters of Horton gathered outside the Orange County Fire Authority Station 41 at the Fullerton Airport on August 28 to protest her firing by OCFA. Another protest is planned for the September 23 OCFA Board of Trustees meeting at 6pm at the Regional Fire Operations and Training Center Board Room 1 Fire Authority Road in Irvine.
A petition on Change.org has been created on Desiree’s behalf and there has been an outpouring of support on social media.
The Orange County Fire Authority provides fire protection and emergency medical services for unincorporated areas of Orange County as well as 25 cities within the county that contract OCFA’s services. Fullerton has its own municipal fire department, but OCFA maintains an air operations station at the Fullerton Airport.
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