THEY'RE FOUR little words, but you'd want to hear them if you or a loved one were about to make a career out of running into burning buildings.

"We are a family."

It's inspiring, reassuring stuff. At least that's what Geneva Hatcher thought when she heard Philadelphia Fire Department brass utter those words at a graduation ceremony when her husband joined the ranks of the city's bravest in the 1970s, and then again when her daughter followed in his footsteps a generation later.

But when push came to shove - when Hatcher's husband contracted hepatitis C from the job, and when her daughter faced relentless sexual harassment and threats from her peers - all of that talk about family and camaraderie turned out to be a bunch of bull.

She watched in disbelief as the people she cared for most were abandoned by the men and women who were supposed to have their backs in life-or-death situations.

The city fought Hatcher's husband, Marcellus "Marty" Hatcher, tooth-and-nail over reimbursing his medical bills while he withered away from his disease in the late 1990s, resorting to dirty tactics - accusing the devout Jehovah's Witness of being a boozer or a womanizer - instead of offering comfort and support in his final days.

Hatcher's daughter, Lisa Jeter, had to sue the city twice over the come-ons and intimidation she faced after she decided to join what is supposed to be a noble profession.

She now sits at home, unpaid, applying in vain for other jobs with the city, away from her tormentors.

"It was a betrayal, what they did to my husband and then my daughter," Hatcher, 60, told the Daily News during a recent interview at her home in East Mount Airy's Ivy Hill section.

"They really didn't look out for us. There was no such thing as 'family,' " she said. "It was very disappointing."

Fire Commissioner Derrick Sawyer sympathizes with Hatcher.

"It is disappointing, because you do hear about the idea of family all the time, but it's not always exhibited," said Sawyer, who counted Marty Hatcher as a friend years ago.

"For the most part, people in the Fire Department do the right thing, but we get caught up talking about the few who don't."

'You're a number'

Marty Hatcher probably wouldn't have been too happy to see his wife quoted in a story that was critical of the Fire Department.

He spent more than two decades putting out fires and saving lives. Loved every minute. And he was loyal to the organization to a fault.

"His brother was a police officer, his one sister worked for the prison system and the other was a nurse," Geneva Hatcher said. "They believed in helping people."

He contracted the illness that ultimately claimed his life while bringing another life into the world.

"He was delivering a baby," Hatcher said. "He didn't have his gloves, and the mother didn't tell him that she had hepatitis C.

"It lay dormant in his body for seven or eight years, but then he gradually started getting sick."

Doctors eventually determined that Marty Hatcher had cirrhosis of the liver. The city argued that drinking had caused the condition, instead of hepatitis C.

"They even said he might have gotten it from a prostitute," Geneva Hatcher said. "They had all of us blood-tested, too. It was terrible."

The fight over Marty Hatcher's medical bills and sick time played out in court, and a judge ultimately ruled that the disease was job-related.

He died at age 46 in September 1998 at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C., while waiting for a liver transplant.

A Daily News report in 2000 found that he was just the tip of the iceberg: At least 130 Philadelphia firefighters had developed hepatitis C from coming into contact with blood or bodily fluids while on the job.

"He was so loyal to them. He wouldn't let me say anything negative about the Fire Department," Geneva Hatcher said. "He really believed they would help him. I told him, 'These people don't care about you. You're just a Social Security number. They put you in the system, and they take you out.' "

'It got worse'

Despite her husband's ordeal, Geneva Hatcher was optimistic when her daughter, Lisa Jeter, vowed to become a firefighter.

"She wanted to do it not just for her dad, but for herself," Hatcher said.

"She enjoys helping people, and she excels at it. She was the class spokesperson when she graduated from the Fire Academy . . . everyone was so proud of her."

But Jeter encountered problems as soon as her career began at North Philly's Engine 34 in 2005.

She was hit on constantly by Arthur Blanks, her boss at the firehouse, according to a lawsuit that Jeter filed in 2008.

At one point, Blanks unzipped his pants and "adjusted himself" in front of Jeter, according to the lawsuit. He later committed suicide.

Sawyer, who mentored Jeter, said he was "disappointed" when he learned of the harassment she faced.

"I think we should treat every woman as if she was our sister, our cousin, our mother," he said. "We all have female family members. If somebody treated my sister like that, I'd have a serious problem with them."

The city settled Jeter's lawsuit for $90,000. She had a baby and returned to Engine 34 in July 2009.

"I thought everything would be better, that it would be a fresh start," Hatcher said. "It got worse."

According to a lawsuit that Jeter filed in 2012, she was referred to as a "bitch" and "little girl" by a fellow firefighter, Anthony Hill.

Hill also allegedly threw an oxygen pack at Jeter, according to the lawsuit.

But that wasn't all.

Capt. Richard Meagher, then-commander of Engine 34, called the Fire Department's infection-control officer when Jeter stored her breast milk in the firehouse refrigerator, according to the lawsuit.

A separate refrigerator was set up for Jeter to store the milk, but her colleagues repeatedly unplugged it, causing the milk to spoil.

Exasperated, Jeter had her husband - also a Philly firefighter - bring her infant son to the firehouse so that she could nurse him.

Her colleagues complained that she was violating a rule about having "overnight" guests in the firehouse. Jeter and her husband were disciplined for the offense - making sure that their infant was fed.

At the same time, according to the lawsuit, Jeter's colleagues began to spread rumors that she was sleeping with other firefighters.

Her superiors did little to stop the harassment. Jeter, 33, developed post-traumatic stress disorder and left the job.

She declined to comment for this article.

"It's like another stab in the back," Hatcher said.

"First my husband, now my daughter. No one would step up and say that this was wrong, but it was killing her emotionally and mentally."

Jeter's second lawsuit was settled last year for $90,000. It supposedly included a provision allowing her to take another job with the city, Hatcher said.

The City Solicitor's Office provided the Daily News with a copy of the agreement. It called for Jeter to be allowed to apply for "any City Civil Service" jobs for which she believed she was qualified. The city, in turn, agreed to "use its best efforts" to process the application quickly, and not interfere with her efforts to land a new job.

Jeter applied for four positions, some of which were administrative, and was rejected by the city for each, her mother said.

Sawyer said he wasn't familiar with the details of the settlement, but believed that a job would help Jeter to feel that "justice has been served."

The Fire Department "needs to have constant sexual-harassment training," he said. "We need to have yearly training, so that it's at the forefront of everyone's minds."

Hatcher said her son, Nicholas, 31, turned down an opportunity to join the Fire Department after seeing how his sister had been treated.

"He didn't want to be part of an organization like this," Hatcher said.

Need to change

A Daily News investigation last month found that stories like Jeter's aren't uncommon among Philly's female firefighters, based on lawsuits that in recent years have offered a disturbing look at how women are treated in the Fire Department.

The ghosts of these prior instances of workplace torment were stirred up in January, when a sex scandal involving a troubled female paramedic and 15 Fire Department employees made national headlines.

Joe Schulle, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 22, said an Inspector General's Office investigation into the scandal hinted at systemic problems in the Fire Department.

But the Inspector General's Office's findings have remained mostly shrouded in mystery; the report hasn't been made public.

"When you look at the history of the Fire Department, there have been opportunities to address these complaints and look at making some systemic changes," Schulle said. "But clearly these things are still going on, which indicates they've never really been addressed."

There are a variety of opinions on how to fix the department's persistent sexual-harassment problems.

"Don't say, 'We have a zero-tolerance policy,' if you don't mean it," Hatcher said. "If you say it and back it up with real action, people will catch on."

Sawyer said zero tolerance is a nice idea but hard to achieve because union efforts and the city's infamous arbitration system can sometimes overturn disciplinary action.

"The arbitration process makes it difficult to enforce anything," he said.

Schulle said a comprehensive approach is required.

Female firefighters need to be guided on how to respond to harassment, and third-party investigators should be brought in to ensure that their concerns won't be ignored.

But male firefighters also need to be trained on how to behave around women, who still count as a small minority in the Fire Department, he said.

"It is ridiculous that you have to discuss this with grown men," he said.

But he also said some firefighters just aren't used to working with women. "In some cases, guys are just used to being able to say words they typically don't use in mixed company . . . they're not used to being in mixed company in a firehouse."

Democratic mayoral candidate Jim Kenney, a longtime supporter of the Fire Department and the son of a city firefighter, said in a statement that he urges the Inspector General's Office, Local 22 and the department's leaders to meet and discuss the Inspector General's report.

"Only by working together can we ensure that every firefighter, regardless of gender, is treated with the dignity and respect they certainly deserve," he said.

Geneva Hatcher believes it's high time for the Fire Department to start living up to the lofty ideals - honor and loyalty and bravery - it claims as its lifeblood.

"If my husband was here, he would have been so proud of his daughter," she said. "But he would have been awfully disappointed in how the Fire Department has treated us."

On Twitter: @dgambacorta