Fairfax firefighter Nicole Mittendorff, 31, killed herself last month in Shenandoah National Park. (Family photo/Family photo)
Columnist

Burning buildings, lethal smoke, harrowing rescues — our country’s firefighters brave it all. But too many of them can’t seem to handle something far less difficult: working side-by-side with women.

We saw this in stark relief last month when Fairfax County firefighter Nicole Mittendorff hanged herself in Virginia’s Shenandoah mountains and her department launched an investigation into a series of lurid, degrading posts allegedly written by her co-workers in an online forum.

At a news conference last week, Fairfax Fire Chief Richard Bowers asked the website to remove the anonymous posts about Mittendorff. He promised he would create a task force to examine the department’s environment for discrimination, harassment and bullying. There are 165 women firefighters out of 1,400, he said, and they are entitled to a safe, respectful work environment. He said he would “continue to hold — and have held — people accountable for any proven violation.”

But not only are there too many firefighters across the country who act like middle-schoolers, there are also far too many leaders who tolerate it.

Last year, a female firefighter in Albuquerque, N.M., was awarded $183,000 for enduring years of sexual harassment from co-workers, including being grabbed and spied on in the shower. Once, she was asleep on a couch when she woke up and found a colleague standing over her, exposing his genitals.

“And the fire department knew about it,” her attorney told the Albuquerque Journal.

A female firefighter at an Ohio firehouse not far from Cleveland alleged in a 2015 lawsuit that she kept finding semen squirted on her bunk, urine replacing shampoo in her bottle, holes cut into her clothing and the screws loosened on her mask, so that it fell apart when she put it on at a fire scene.

Last year a Tampa Fire Rescue personnel chief, known in his department as “Uncle Touchy,” retired amid accusations that he had tried to kiss a female firefighter in an elevator, along with hugging her and making inappropriate comments.

In Fairfax, the problem is acute, according to Ellen Renaud, an attorney who has been representing female firefighters in sexual harassment cases for the past eight years.

“From what I have seen, sex-based harassment happens to nearly every woman who works for the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department,” Renaud said. “Most cope with it, in one way or another. Unfortunately, a ‘go-along-and-get-along’ response to sexual harassment sometimes results in an escalation of an already bad situation.”

Five years ago, a federal jury awarded one of her clients, Mary Getts Bland, $250,000 after finding that the department knew about and tolerated a male lieutenant’s sexual harassment.

Bland is now retired, but she said in her lawsuit and in court testimony that she was targeted from the moment she started working in 2001.

“Do you enjoy having sex with more than one partner?” she was asked by the lieutenant who recruited her into the department. And, “Do you like to be watched while you masturbate?”

Years later, the same guy, Lt. Timothy D. Young, walked past her at a fire scene carrying a long “pike pole” and told her “this looks like it would hurt,” her lawsuit said.

When Bland finally complained, Young was given a written reprimand, ordered to stay away from her and reassigned to a different part of the county. But he wound up being accused by another female firefighter in a lawsuit of making inappropriate comments to her, as well. That case was settled out of court, according to court documents that do not disclose the terms.

Is Fairfax a better place for women now? Well, just a week after Mittendorff’s funeral, Renaud said she is about to file yet another lawsuit on behalf of another Fairfax female firefighter.

Of course, women still face harassment in workplaces everywhere. But here’s why it’s especially scary in America’s firehouses: First responders have intimate contact with us when we are at our most vulnerable.

The guy who graphically describes the nether regions of his female colleagues online — do you want him cutting away your nightgown when you’ve been burned by a fire?

The battalion chief who makes it a game to sleep with as many female recruits as possible — you want him in charge when your teenage daughter is in a horrible accident?

In Mittendorff’s community, the loss of public trust in the fire department is palpable.

“Is there an option to call another department if you are a women in NoVa?” one woman asked on the Fairfax fire department’s Facebook page.

“How could anyone in Fairfax County, VA ever want the FD to come to their aid in a most vulnerable state?” another resident asked. “If I am hurt in my home, how do I know that the people who come to help me are not going to discuss me, my health, my body?”

Mistreating women in the workforce is about more than suppressing dirty jokes. It’s about character, respect and trust.

Retired Fairfax firefighter Eric Lamar, a former union president, has been crusading to restore that trust on his Turnout Blog, asking the department’s leaders to both acknowledge and stop predatory sexual behavior.

Fairfax firefighter Michael Mohler, a former union president who joined the department 40 years ago, said Mittendorff’s death could fuel a transformation of the culture.

“I want this to be that moment. The one that people look back on,” said Mohler, who has twin daughters who are Mittendorff’s age.

This week, he said he drove Mittendorff’s mom to the spot in the Shenandoah Mountains where her daughter killed herself. And he promised her, he said, that he would help make change in the department.

“We’re very good at putting on funerals,” he said. “That’s not enough.”

Twitter: @petulad