It is not known why the 31-year-old took her life, but Mittendorff’s death stirred anger about lewd and harassing comments that had been made about her in a popular online forum. The messages, which appeared to have been posted by colleagues, reverberated painfully with women in firefighting locally and across the nation.
A top-ranking woman in Fairfax filed a lawsuit last month accusing the department officials of failing to stop sexual harassment. A female colleague also recently sued, saying that she was ostracized for reporting male firefighters partying on a firetruck with Hooters waitresses.
A former paramedic with a Carroll County, Md. department wrote online about how she was regularly propositioned for sex by male colleagues. When she complained, she wrote, she was told in effect: “You’re in a man’s job, what do you expect?”
Many hope that Mittendorff’s case and their own stories trigger changes, as have similar discussions about sexual assault on college campuses. Some fear that if issues of bullying and sexism are not addressed there could be other suicides. .
“The culture that resides around women is that we’re not supposed to actually be on the hose lines or driving the fire apparatus,” said Cheri Zosh, a battalion chief in Fairfax. “That attitude of the past still resides in a large percentage of the nation.”
William R. Metcalf, the former president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, called firefighting a “white guy’s club.” He said too few departments have made a sustained effort to welcome women.
“In a surprisingly large number of fire departments, it’s okay to harass and physically assault women and minorities — even rape women — in our fire stations,” Metcalf wrote in a 2014 open letter to the organization’s membership that he said he could have written today because so little has changed.
Others think such negative assessments are overblown and that women have made slow but steady progress within the field. Some female firefighters in Fairfax and other departments say they see few barriers to acceptance or advancement.
“Do we have bad actors? We certainly probably do,” Bowers said. “When those bad actors display something that is inappropriate, they are dealt with.”
A survey that accompanied the report found that 85 percent of female firefighters reported being treated differently because of their gender, 65 percent said their department had no procedure for addressing discrimination and 30 percent reported unwanted sexual advances.
Grief turns to outrage
The search for the Woodbridge, Va., woman quickly became national news and generated intense interest on social media. Her family and fellow Fairfax firefighters stood side byside at a tearful news conference asking for help locating her.
Her body was discovered about a week later in Shenandoah National Park and her death was ruled a suicide.
The grief over Mittendorff’s death soon turned to outrage.
Anonymous and sexually suggestive messages about Mittendorff that were posted on the web forum Fairfax Underground before her death were cited in news stories that raised concerns about the department’s culture. The writers seemed to have inside knowledge of Fairfax County fi re.
Suddenly, a department that was accustomed to saving people in distress was faced with an uncomfortable question: Had its firefighters contributed to the mental anguish that led Mittendorff to take her life?
Bowers announced an “aggressive” internal investigation to determine whether any of the department’s firefighters wrote the posts. That probe remains ongoing and Bowers said he has not determined the writers’ identities.
Still, the combination of a high-profile suicide and cyber harassment touched a nerve and prompted raw conversations within a profession that has had high-profile struggles with gender issues.
“The tragic suicide death of Fairfax County Firefighter Nicole Mittendorff may end up being ‘the one,’ Billy Goldfeder, a deputy chief in Ohio, wrote in an online message asking male firefighters to examine their treatment of female colleagues.
“I had a personal [Facebook] message from one of my brothers citing the Bible — ‘women shall remain silent’ and another one explaining to me why women shouldn’t be firefighters,’” Phillips wrote.
Mittendorff’s case comes after fire departments have been hit with dozens of gender discrimination and sexual harassment lawsuits in recent years and have been forced to pay out millions in settlements and jury awards.
In 2013, a jury awarded a female firefighter in Ohio $1.7 million after she was sexually harassed. Testimony revealed the department didn’t take sexual-harassment education seriously, showing firefighters training videos on a split screen with NASCAR races.
“I think it’s a complete mixed bag,” Brewer said. “I think some people feel like women are being shoved down their throats. Other places, if you can do the job, they are accepting.”
A suicide resonates in Fairfax
Mittendorff’s death hit most forcefully with her female colleagues, such as Patricia Tomasello, who is one of a number of Fairfax County firefighters who have filed lawsuits or come forward to describe sexist treatment.
The veteran firefighter said that as a child she would pester her brother to take her by the fire station near their home.
But the true challenge wouldn’t become apparent until she arrived on the job soon after. Early on, she recalled a colleague calling her a derogatory name for a woman and telling her that women were a distraction.
Tomasello alleges in her lawsuit filed in May that she was subject to unwanted sexual advances, passed over for promotions and ostracized for reporting the incident involving the male firefighters on the firetruck with Hooters waitresses.
“All county employees are required to participate in training regarding sexual harassment and hostile work environments,” the statement read. “Allegations of harassment are taken seriously and fully investigated.”
Bowers said the department has made changes. They include revised policies for investigating sexual harassment claims, mental-health training and a summit on suicide prevention. He said that one of the efforts — handing out pocket-size cards with suicide hotline numbers — helped head off another suicide in the department.
She alleges that Bowers did not consider her for a deputy chief position because she spoke on Hernandez’s behalf.
Zosh said discrimination is not endemic in the department, but it exists in certain firehouses and shifts.
A group of female firefighters in Fairfax said the lawsuits don’t represent their experience with the department.
Tomasello said whatever the outcome of her suit, she hopes it puts an end to such harassment. Tomasello said she was touched by Mittendorff’s death because of her own struggles as a woman in the department.
“I could have been Nicole Mittendorff.” she said.