The Fairfax County fire department has problems with leadership, communication and the status of paramedics, but it does not face widespread issues with the treatment of women in its ranks, according to a report released Tuesday.
The review by county officials comes just weeks after fire chief Richard R. Bowers Jr. announced his retirement amid accusations from a top-ranking female firefighter that women face a toxic atmosphere in the department.
Battalion Chief Kathleen Stanley’s resignation in January as interim head of the department’s women’s program sparked the probe. Her resignation letter alleged a long list of problems, including the assertions that a captain was retaliated against for seeking an apology for sexual harassment, that the department’s zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment is not enforced and that some men receive special privileges.
New Fairfax County Executive Bryan J. Hill said at a Tuesday news conference that each of Stanley’s allegations was thoroughly examined but that the investigation did not substantiate many of the complaints and that others were handled previously. Four issues she raised were forwarded to an internal auditor for review.
“We have cultural issues. We have cultural concerns, but guess what? We deal with those,” Hill said. “We are a fire and rescue department that is a 24-hour operation. Things obviously happen in a household that’s 24 hours.”
The report said Stanley was wrong to say that the department’s zero-tolerance sexual harassment policy is hollow and that senior leadership does not accept there is a cultural problem at the department. The investigation found Stanley’s complaint that she faced hostility for promoting workplace diversity did not rise to the level of retaliation.
More generally, the report also highlighted a survey of 161 women in the department that found that 90 percent reported they had not been mistreated because of their gender in the past five years.
The report did substantiate Stanley’s complaint that some firefighters were using a penis-shaped water bottle. Two were disciplined.
Hill wrote in a memo accompanying the report that interviews showed many firefighters were less concerned about the treatment of women than the department’s direction and its process for communicating. Paramedics also said they felt overlooked.
Stanley did not return a call seeking comment. Battalion Chief Cheri Zosh said there are still “pockets of resistance” within the department that don’t want to be inclusive of women, but she said she’s hopeful a new chief and county executive could make changes.
In 2016, Zosh filed a federal lawsuit against the department claiming she was retaliated against for trying to stop a captain from sexually harassing a subordinate.
“There is still no commitment to holding people accountable,” Zosh said.
Other female firefighters disagreed.
“I know for myself that we’ve been treated extremely well,” said Jennifer Himer. “This is my family.”
Stanley’s scathing letter is the latest episode for a department that has been dogged by complaints and lawsuits alleging sexual harassment, retaliation and the failure to promote women for years. The roughly 1,400-member department has 171 women.
The issues were highlighted dramatically in 2016, when firefighter Nicole Mittendorff took her own life. Her family has not revealed the cause of her suicide, but it emerged after her death that anonymous posters had made sexually explicit and misogynistic comments about her on a local Internet forum.
The posts appeared to be made by people with knowledge of the department, but an investigation by officials was not able to determine whether firefighters were involved.
County officials also commissioned an independent audit of the department’s culture that was released in February 2017 and found widespread problems. Nearly 40 percent of firefighters reported experiencing or witnessing harassment, bullying and discrimination in the department. Leadership was also criticized.
Bowers promised to change the department’s culture, instituting a range of changes such as fresh training, resources for firefighters suffering mental-health crises and new policies for investigating complaints of sexual harassment.
But concerns flared anew in January with Stanley’s resignation from the women’s program. Hill said the county hopes to hire a new fire chief by June.