The suicide of Firefighter Nicole Mittendorff and the discovery of cyber-harassment of Mittendorff and others has put focus on the treatment of female firefighters from Virginia’s Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department. Yesterday (Thursday), Petula Dvorak of The Washington Post wrote another column on the subject. This one looked at the treatment of women in the fire service and featured court cases across from the country and in Fairfax County. Here’s an excerpt:
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.
Other coverage: Turn Out blog
That’s a strong statement –“… sex-based harassment happens to nearly every women who works for the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department.” Whether it’s true or not, it’s out there, on the record, in the most public of forums. Ignoring it will not make it go away. How will the leadership in Fairfax County respond to such a powerful allegation?
Already, a week has gone by since another reporter discovered a court document that questions a statement by Fire Chief Richie Bowers. So far, there has been no comment or clarification from the chief or the department. During last Friday’s press conference, Chief Bowers was asked, “Have you ever dealt with an online bullying allegation before during your tenure in the department?” The chief replied, “I have not.” Yet at 11:00 that night WTTG-TV/FOX5 reporter Jennifer Davis reported the following:
In court documents that Fox 5 obtained, it shows that just three months ago, as part of an official police investigation, the ‘Fairfax Underground’ site administrators were asked to remove profane and indecent information written about a different female Fairfax County firefighter. The administrator of the site says rather than attacking him, its time the fire department looked within at the culture its creating.
That information doesn’t mean Chief Bowers knew about that investigation or that his statement earlier in the day was wrong. But, the discovery of the court document raises enough of a question that you would think Chief Bowers and Fairfax County would want to clear up the issue in an effort to protect credibility.
If the chief was wrong in his statement, correct it immediately. If Chief Bowers and his staff didn’t know about this previous investigation, confirm that and explain what is being done to prevent such a communications problem from occurring again. If the information the reporter has is just flat-out wrong, let us know.
Silence is not the friend of Chief Bowers and other Fairfax County officials as they face these serious claims. The county has a history of failing to provide answers during such controversies. The refusal to talk greatly damaged the image of the Fairfax County Police Department. Here’s hoping county leaders are smarter about protecting the image of the fire department.