Bullying, harassment and discrimination are perceived to be problems in parts of the Fairfax County Fire Department, and nearly 40 percent of firefighters responding to a survey had experienced or witnessed it, according to a new report released Wednesday.
The analysis of the culture of the Fairfax County Fire Department was commissioned by the county in the wake of the high-profile suicide of firefighter Nicole Mittendorff, who was the subject of sexist and derogatory comments on a local Web forum before her death in April. It remains unclear who posted the remarks on the Fairfax Underground forum, or whether they played a role in Mittendorff’s suicide, but fire department officials have been exploring whether the messages might have been posted by her colleagues.
Mittendorff’s death and a series of lawsuits by other female firefighters alleging discrimination and sexual harassment prompted questions about the treatment of women in the department and touched off a discussion nationally about the low number of women in firefighting and the problems they face.
[Female firefighter’s suicide is a ‘fire bell in the night’]
The 53-page report by a management consultant group found strong dedication and pride among the Fairfax department’s 1,400 rank-and-file firefighters, but also issues with bullying, senior leadership and conflict management.
Nicole Mittendorff in an undated family photo. She was reported missing April 15, and her body was found about a week later. (Family photo)
A survey that accompanied the report found 37 percent of respondents either experienced or witnessed bullying, harassment and discrimination, and some thought the issues need to be proactively addressed by the department and the county.
The report also found there was dissatisfaction with the top ranks of the department.
“Poor leadership behaviors are driving a negative culture,” the report found. “These behaviors include a lack of accountability, lack of integrity, lack of consistency and most importantly, a lack of trust.”
The report concluded that firefighters perceived additional problems with the department’s discipline process. Some found it inconsistent and unfair. They were also concerned about reprisals for coming forward.
Fire Chief Richard R. Bowers Jr. wrote in a statement that he would work to fix the problems identified by the report.
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“It is clear from the results of the cultural assessment of the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department that we have some challenges ahead,” the statement said. “I take these results very seriously.”
Nicole Mittendorff’s locker at Fairfax County Fire Station No. 32 in Fairfax Station, Va. (Justin Jouvenal/The Washington Post)
The chief has noted that the department already has made changes in response to concerns raised after Mittendorff’s death. They include revised policies for investigating sexual harassment claims, mental-health training and a summit on suicide prevention.
Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova said in a statement that the report “brought important issues to our attention.”
“It is critical that every member of the Fire and Rescue Department is treated with dignity and respect,” her statement said.