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The letter (below) from Fairfax County Fire Rescue Department Battalion Chief Kathleen Stanley to her boss, Chief Richard Bowers, is well worth reading. It lists more than 20 reasons why Stanley is resigning her post as Women’s Program Officer, including, “… the current fire department environment is such that a male Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Employee felt comfortable enough to purchase a penis shape water bottle and use it in the station.” The story was first reported yesterday (Tuesday) evening by Peggy Fox at WUSA9.com.
Can I tell you everything Chief Stanley wrote in her list of complaints about the treatment of women in the department has been independently verfied and is 100 percent correct? No, I can’t. What I can tell you — based on how Chief Bowers and his bosses in Fairfax County handled the aftermath of the April, 2016 suicide of Firefighter Nicole Mittendorff — is this latest development is not surprising.
As a Fairfax County resident, I used this website to complain about the lack of candor and transparency after numerous complaints surfaced over the treatment of women in the department. In the weeks following the suicide, I urged leadership in the county to bring in an independent investigator to look at each of those complaints and evaluate the overall problem. It seemed obvious that getting these real answers was important for those making the accusations, the accused, the entire department and the public. Instead, the county settled for a consultant to perform an evaluation rather than an investigation.
Admittedly, the consultant came up with a rather blunt report on bullying, harassment and leadership that was released to the public last February. But what was missing and is still missing is accountability. The chief never publicly addressed any of the harassment and discrimination cases in the news after Mittendorf’s death — including a specific complaint against senior leadership. Chief Bowers never even shared his own assessment of the severity of the problem in the department he leads.
Chief Bowers substituted accountability and clarity with his frequent claims the department has “zero tolerance.” It was repeated so much that I asked last May — after another incident became public — if there really was “zero tolerance” or, as one member of the county board of supervisors claimed, “There’s a cancer in the department.” A second supervisor said she was “fit to be tied.” (It was after this May incident that we first heard from Chief Stanley and — for the first time — some blunt talk about these issues.)
Eight months later, Battalion Chief Stanley makes the same point. She wrote, “‘zero tolerance’ is a hollow term thrown about with false commitment.”
If that’s the case, it might be an awkward moment when Chief Bowers greets those attending the 2018 I-Women Conference as it opens on May 24th with Fairfax County as the host. Then again, looking at those comments last year from some of the county’s political leaders, you have to wonder — considering this latest development and the current environment around the country — if Chief Bowers will be here come May.
Dear Chief Bowers,
I would formally like to submit my resignation as (interim) Women’s Program Officer for your approval. This is an extremely painful decision to make, as I see a great need for a women advocate, but it has become clear that my style of leadership and my views and values towards change do not coincide with yours, or the current leadership of the Department, therefore, I am not the right person to influence your direction of change. Although most of the situations I have encountered, are not excusive to women nor are they “women” issues, they seem to effect/include women more often than men. Most of the men in this Department are amazing people who have grown tired of being compared to the few outliers who create the toxic environment, and they too, want leadership to address the negative behaviors straight on. With that said, I offer the following examples which have influenced my decision to resign:
- This position is for show, with no legitimate authority, respect, or value. Advice, advocacy and suggestions are humored, at best, and routinely dismissed.
- Fairfax County Fire and Rescue tolerates, and often defends, sexual harassment, retaliation and a hostile work environment: “zero tolerance” is a hollow term thrown about with false commitment.
- As an example, a seasoned Captain was publicly harassed by a superior officer, in front of a DFC and other witnesses.
- When she asked for an apology, the retaliation started
- The OHREP complaint was sustained for sexual harassment, retaliation, and hostile work environment, yet the accused is still employed and came out of this investigation unscathed; rank intact.
- In another example, 3 women from on station filed EEO complaints about the station captain. Even the Sustained complaints saw no action from Senior leadership.
- Senior leadership does not accept there is a culture problem. Senior leadership is perceived not to held accountable, as was determined by the Cultural Assessment Survey and the “mandatory” BC meetings recently held. I watched most of senior staff denounce and deny the findings in the Cultural Assessment Survey.
- Several members of Senior leadership are culpable of furthering the negative environment by their direct action of bullying employees, violating R&R, SOPs and lack basic common decency towards some individuals, without being held accountable. Thus, enabling the tacit approval of such behaviors. Examples:
- DFC threatened postpartum women with discipline if they did not report to HQ while on FMLA to sign a superfluous piece of paper: violating County Rules and Regulations, Fire Department S.O.P. and the Federal law, yet he received no discipline or corrective action. (tolerated)
- A BFC denied a woman a step one grievance, and step two, which is blatantly against County Rule and Regulations and Fairfax S.O.P.s. He received no discipline or corrective action but was promoted to DFC shortly after. (tolerated, rewarded)
- Assistant Fire Chief firmly stated the he “was sick and tired of people hiding behind the “retaliation card” and there was NO retaliation in this department. This was stated right after a superior officer finished berating me for asking a question. (denial)
- A complaint from 9 women saying they were excluded women from overtime positions and the opportunity to train from Capt. running field training program. No corrective actions, defended by the DFC, AFC, FC even after emails and statistics were produced to show the pattern. He was promoted to Battalion Chief shortly after. (tolerate, defended and rewarded)
- There is a small bevy of man who regularly receive privileges exclusive to them, thus perpetuating the Good ‘Ol boy network.
- Several important personnel selections (IA, Capt.) excluded uniformed women on the panel, and substituted civilian female from HR. Eliminating the uniformed women’s input in our future environment of this Department.
- It has become apparent from our last few meetings that any effort on my part to better the departments diversity will be met with defense and anger. This is not a productive relationship to achieve increased inclusion and advancement for the women of this department.
- I have faced overt retaliation for speaking out against the current practices, which I have brought to the attention of the FC and the Dep CoEx’s, without any visible corrective action. This reinforces the current perception of retaliation for speaking up. This would not be bothersome if there was a chance at progress.
- This department is not actively pursuing change: mandatory training is not change. This was reinforced 1/23/2018 meeting as I tried to demonstrate the cumulative effect of 4 recent acts, all of which decrease a diverse working environment.
- There are indicators throughout our Department which indicate there is a substantial problem in our ranks, but the FD continues to march on in its tradition cadence. When this was outlined to you as an example of obstacles that we could possibly correct, it was met with defense and hostility (1/23/2018)
- County HR or FD HR has not been able to provide me with the statistical data requested to start identifying trends of the FD women. If we can identify the trends, we can start truly working on retention.
- For these reasons, and so many more, the current fire department environment is such that a male Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Employee felt comfortable enough to purchase a penis shape water bottle and use it in the station. This is a sign of a real problem.
There is a real need, and real potential, for the Women’s Program Officer, and judging by the issues brought to my attention in the last two years, women within the department benefit from having an advocate. I have been involved with more than half of the women currently in the Department. Many of these issues have been brought forward by stand-up men in this Department who don’t want to associate with these kinds of behaviors. There are so many great people who would like to see change, but it has become obvious, I am not the right choice to facilitate this change.
I would formally like to recommend BC Cheri Zosh to succeed me. She is the only other female (not in DROP) of significant rank who can sit in senior staff and strong enough to advocate for women. I will be happy to remain until my replacement is named, or I can vacate immediately, whichever is best for you.
Thank for your consideration,
Battalion Chief Kathleen Stanley
Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department
Battalion Chief of Special Projects, Fire Chief’s Office