Fairfax County officials announced Wednesday they will investigate claims that the county’s fire department is doing little to curb sexual harassment and mistreatment of women in the ranks.
Battalion Chief Kathleen Stanley outlined the allegations in a scathing letter she submitted last month, announcing her resignation as interim director of the fire department’s women’s program. Department leaders dispute the claims.
“This position is for show with no legitimate authority, respect or value,” Stanley wrote in the letter. “Advice, advocacy and suggestions are humored, at best, and routinely dismissed.”
Stanley detailed a long list of complaints, including claims that a “seasoned Captain” was retaliated against after seeking an apology for sexual harassment, that a small group of men receive exclusive privileges and that department claims of “zero tolerance” for sexual harassment are hollow.
“Fairfax County takes very seriously any behavior that threatens a safe, respectful and professional work environment,” said Sharon S. Bulova (D), chairman of the county board of supervisors.
Fairfax County Fire Chief Richard R. Bowers Jr. defended the department at a news conference last week, saying a recent survey of female firefighters found 95 percent reported being satisfied with the department’s culture. He said the department has been working diligently to become a better place for women to work.
“To our community, please know that the men and women of this department work hard to ensure a welcoming and safe environment for all residents and employees,” Bowers said. “We stand behind and support all of our personnel.”
The department employs roughly 165 women in a workforce of about 1,400.
The department is highly regarded nationally but has been dogged for years by complaints and lawsuits claiming female firefighters have been sexually harassed and top brass has done little to investigate or stem the problems.
In 2016, a handful of women came forward with such claims after the suicide of a female firefighter, which became national news. It’s not known why Nicole Mittendorff took her life, but lewd and harassing comments were made about her in a local online forum that appeared to come from people within the department.
Despite an investigation, the department said it was never able to determine who posted the comments.
The anger surrounding Mittendorff’s case prompted county officials to commission a report on the culture of the department, which was released in February 2017 and found significant problems. A survey found nearly 40 percent of firefighters reported experiencing or witnessing harassment, bullying and discrimination. It also showed some were dissatisfied with the department’s leadership.
“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.”
In the wake of Stanley’s letter becoming public, Steve Mittendorff, Nicole’s Mittendorff’s widower, called for Bowers’s resignation last week.
“Shortly after the suicide of my wife Nicole, a promise was made to me by the Department that every effort to educate and re-shape the culture of this male dominated profession would be met; ultimately, to provide every female or male a safe place to work free of harassment by others and one that is open to progressive change,” Mittendorff wrote in a statement.