Is it zero tolerance or is there really a cancer in the Fairfax County Fire Rescue Department?

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Read WUSA9.com story by Peggy Fox

One-year-ago, Fairfax County officials were dealing with the fallout from the suicide of Firefighter Nicole Mittendorff. Today, the Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department is again dealing with the fallout of Mittendorff’s suicide.

How bad is this situation? One member of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors told WUSA9.com reporter Peggy Fox yesterday (Tuesday), “There’ s cancer in the department. Some individuals just don’t get it.” Another angry supervisor said to Fox she’s “fit to be tied.”

How does this happen? It happens because the fire chief, leaders of the Fairfax County government and the Board of Supervisors all failed to properly deal with this situation last year and are poised to continue to make the same mistakes.

Previous coverage of this story

Lets start with the most immediate problem. In the last six days there have been at least four news stories about an incident that occurred during an April 21 “family night” for the latest recruit class. Complaints were made about the comments of a captain who was apparently discussing bullying and harassment.

By the time Peggy Fox broke this story last Thursday the incident was already 14-days-old. Despite all that time, I can’t tell you with any certainty what the captain did or didn’t say that caused this controversy. That’s because, as usual, the department is taking the less than transparent route. This path usually stretches stories into many days and weeks and substitutes worn out catch phrases for real facts and accountability.

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Chief Richie Bowers

This should have been a no-brainer. Whatever happened occurred in a public forum witnessed by many employees and visitors. By the time Peggy Fox started asking questions Chief Richie Bowers should have had answers. Answers that included an account of what the captain actually said, Chief Bowers assessment of those comments, an apology (if necessary) and an explanation of what corrective actions need to be taken.

Instead, we are now on the third story from Fox and this is all Richie Bowers has to say:

“I have a zero tolerance for any of that type of behavior,” said Fairfax Fire Chief Richard Bowers. He says if those comments were made, they’re unacceptable. He says he’s investigating.

Guess what Chief Richie Bowers said last year when the accounts of Nicole Mittendorff being harassed and bullied online brought to light numerous other complaints about issues of sexual harassment and discrimination in the department? Here’s your answer, courtesy of Tim Peterson at The Connection:

“Fairfax County Fire and Rescue maintains a ‘zero tolerance’ policy in regards to bullying and harassment of any kind,” Fire Chief Richard Bowers said in an April 29 statement.

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Nicole Mittendorff

So, where is the truth about harassment, bullying and discrimination in the Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department?

As a citizen of Fairfax County, should I believe the Bowers retreaded “zero tolerance” claim or the “cancer in the department” statement by one of the chief’s bosses on the Board of Supervisors?

I can’t give you even an educated guess. That’s because I still don’t know any of the facts about what happened last year.

The numerous claims beginning in April 2016 included at least one complaint that focused on actions by Bowers and his command staff. Other complaints highlighted problems with an investigator who was supposed to be handling harassment investigations for the department.

In my 2016 columns I attempted to chart a path out of the morass for the leaders of my home county. With so many allegations and claims against the investigator and department leadership, the most important of my suggestions was for an independent investigation. That should have been SOP once allegations stretched to the top of the department. A trusted outsider should have been brought in to let the supervisors, the department and the public know what was real and what wasn’t. It never happened.

To this day, we don’t know if Richie Bowers, his command staff and the department investigator (now separated from the department) actually ignored grievances brought by female employees. We don’t know if there is validity to any of the many claims that became public. We do know how employees feel. That’s because the the Board of Supervisors called for and received a consultants report to get a sense of the harassment and discrimination concerns. But we still don’t know the facts.

The failure to order an independent investigation set us up for where we are today: Another Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department crisis crying out for real facts and real transparency.

I also have zero tolerance. Zero tolerance for leaders who can’t learn from their mistakes and can’t do things better the next time. And if forced to make a diagnosis, I would say that’s the real cancer slowly eating away at this fire department.