WASHINGTON — Investigators are looking into the cyberbullying that firefighter Nicole Mittendorff endured from her colleagues before taking her life, and leaders in the Fairfax County firefighting community say it will set precedent in how bullying is handled in a firehouse.
The body of Mittendorff, a firefighter paramedic, was found April 21 in Shenandoah National Park after an exhaustive days-long search for her that began when she did not show up for work more than a week before.
While no one knows the role cyberbullying played in her decision to take her life, scathing online attacks from people who claim to be Mittendorff’s colleagues are part of an active thread in an underground local forum.
Most of the posts are too obscene to quote, and call the 31-year-old Mittendorff out by name. Commenters, who don’t use their real names, criticize her body, her sex life, even her death, while also shaming other women.
“It’s sad. I’m disappointed people would stoop to this level of harassment, of bullying. And that’s what it is. Online cyberbullying is another form of harassment,” said Angela Hughes, president of the International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services.
Mittendorff’s family has not made any public statements about whether she described feeling bullied, or whether the bullying may have played any role in her suicide.
Women only make up four percent of career firefighter/EMTs, and like in many male-dominated professions, have to fight harder to earn respect, Hughes said.
“I’ve seen some Facebook pages or sites that aren’t particularly fond of women. That is the word to use in the fire service,” Hughes said.
This sort of assault can be especially difficult to handle in a job that requires mental as well as physical strength, and where co-workers are really like family, Hughes said.
”We’re tight-knit. We care tremendously about each other, so I cant even begin to understand what they’re going through,” Hughes said of the Fairfax County fire department.
In announcing the investigation into the online postings, Fairfax County Fire Chief Richard Bowers has said bullying will not be tolerated in the department.
Hughes is quick to add there are only a few bad apples in fire service, and many men are supportive of women, including Bowers, whom Hughes called an advocate for all of his employees.
“I can’t believe he knew this was out there,” she said of Bowers.
Beyond the emotional distress bullying can cause, personal attacks from those you trust with your life can make a tough job more difficult, said Hughes, who is a Baltimore County fire captain.
“I think that they’re starting to realize this is becoming a bigger problem,” Hughes said of firefighting leadership.
Given what first responders see everyday, concerns over mental health have been on the industry’s radar, but Hughes said other departments will look to how Bowers handles bullying.
Hughes’ organization, which is also known as i-Women, released a PSA after reports of sexual assaults against women in the firehouse. However, she said, it also addresses bullying:
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