Tuesday, September 07, 2021

Desiree Horton: Citing Sex Discrimination, First Female Orange County Fire Authority Pilot Sues to Get Job Back

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.

Helicopter pilot Desiree Horton.

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.


  1. Why publish this article without including the obvious...what was she fired for? It almost appears to have been written by her. Is this journalism, or a fan club? Not taking sides- she may very well have a valid complaint, but I don't think such a one sided article is beneficial to her, unless only read by very shallow people. I hope she is judged by things other than popularity and public support.

  2. She has a long running trail of favorable media coverage, which a firefighting organization would expect to aid them in reputation and approval of expanded budgets and resources.

    Many probation-conditional hire agreements allow termination without having to state a reason. This allows for removal of people who can do the technical job but are not compatible within the organization.

    No information has come out from those who ended her conditional hire as to the reason, but you can be certain they would have kept her on if skill and personality was a good fit.

    Maybe there was too much self promotion and accommodation demanded from each organization she worked for, when what they really needed was a pilot who would work any schedule or location and go all out for the work itself, as all responders are accustomed to doing in every emergency response department across the world.

    In the current cancel culture, nobody is safe to comment on the reason. The mob will demand firing of whoever made the decision, not needing to hear or interested in the reason for termination.

    ABC Glamour video of her at CALFire:

    Long scroll of past articles:

  3. Lots of articles in 2011 at the end of archived blog posting:


  4. They're not going to tell you the reason for her firing because it's a personnel issue, and they can't.

    1. Original anon. poster again here- that may very well be the reason, and may be a good reason, but it is NOT a good reason for publishing a completely one sided article, appearing to exist only to drum up support. If you don't have the pertinent facts for whatever reason, silence is a good option.
      Unfortunately,it isn't in the nature of many who think they are journalists.

  5. Speaking only from my military experience, the last eight years as an instructor pilot out of Ft Hood. I instructed in both the Blackhawk and Apache helicopters.
    The process to evaluate and grade a pilot was consistent, no favors or exceptions given to gender. We had male and female pilots, all held to the same exacting standards. When a pilot failed, there was a long list of checkpoints that determined his or her flight issues. Although flight instructors did not evaluate non flight standards ( mental state, physical state, combat readiness, ect ) .. those were all part of the pilots file and used for qualification.
    In this case, all the department needs to do is demonstrate a similar set of non discriminatory check points used for evaluation, and all Horton needs to do is authorize that file to go public. Assuming the fire department can demonstrate a equal level of evaluation, and those failures that deemed her unfit as a pilot .. the issue is at least in part resolved.
    The comment previous to this cites “ cancel culture” which is all to true. The court of public opinion is often swayed by a minority that employs an emotional argument versus unimpeachable facts. It’s at least my opinion that the battle against cancel culture mentality is best waged with a campaign of factual data. In Hortons case, of which I have no opinion either way, demonstrate clearly the checklist items that she failed. If she wishes to appeal, then have an independent third party assess her flight skills to the same criteria used for all of the agency pilots.

  6. Some interesting background:

    OCFA firefighters have representation from Orange County Professional Firefighters Association IAFF Local 3631. A grievance procedure is defined in it's MOU with OCFA for contesting release from probation if claiming discrimination (See Section 3.C.1.a at MOU link below).

    Presumably that process was followed, but did not satisfy.

    California Department of Fair Employment and Housing will investigate a discrimination complaint, or you can file your own lawsuit for employment discrimination in court after obtaining a Right-to-Sue notice from DFEH instead of using the DFEH investigation process.

    DFEH apparently has granted the "Right to sue". Experienced pilot well known from local news chopper makes this case an easy win without ever going to trial. No attorney should risk having that case go to a jury.

    The MOU:
    DFEH complaints:
    Complaint process flow chart:
    The blank Right to Sue request form:

  7. Agencies are struggling to find and hire minorities. They hired her, but the standard is far tougher than a news chopper flying and hovering to film. Fire choppers have to fly in very bad conditions where it is tough to see, called IMC. Not every pilot can fly by or learn to trust instruments. Most chopper pilots don't get instrument certified. Flying people whose lives are in her hands requires only the best. Documentation for FAA is meticulous and thorough, but when it is a personnel matter, it is not allowed to be released until it reaches the courts. When discovery and depositions are done, everything will be public.

    1. She has been flying fire choppers for many years.

      After doing a quick search with the FAA she is also IFR carded.


      It’s easy to assume that a women would have little firefighting experience and doesn’t have her IFR rating. But a quick internet search has proven otherwise. I’m sure this is part of the problem. Treat a highly skilled and qualified woman as inferior and I’m sure the make pilots are going to have “getting along” problems

    2. Per FAA... she is IFR carded. Do a few more searches and you will see she has thousands of hours fighting fires

  8. I seriously doubt, given her experience, that pilot skill had much, if anything, to do with it. Skills & protocols tend to improve through repetition. Not worsen……

    It reminds me of two charter captains who once told me how a certain co-pilots flying skills sucked. After allowing him to “hand fly”, I silently agreed. But, then I asked the co-pilot the last time he had “hand flown.” He replied “It’s been months. The captains are yoke hogs.”

    Not everything is as black & white as it first appears.

    C. Bea. B-747-4, HS-125, Lr-45, Lr-Jet, RA-390

  9. She flew plenty, maybe there was something else amiss. Not having a military service background, one requirement stands out as possibly challenging from the job posting:

    - Establishing and maintaining harmonious and effective working relationships with superiors, subordinates and other employees in emergency and non-emergency situations


  10. Military and civilian environments both discriminate, including sex crimes against female peers...

  11. While they are all testifying, the fire rages on.