Chief: Fairfax bullying assessment could take up to a year

FAIRFAX, Va. — Fairfax County Fire Chief Richard Bowers said a decision will likely be made soon to determine the third party that will assess whether the fire and rescue department is appropriately handling incidents and complaints of sexual and racial harassment.

Bowers said the county is close to deciding whether to enlist the services of a consultant that is already working with the county, or whether it will be necessary to issue a request for proposals.

“That could take quite a bit of time, up to 200 days just for a request for proposals,” said Bowers, if the county has to enlist new contractors.

Last week, the county Board of Supervisors announced it would hire an outside consultant to look at the workplace atmosphere within the nearly 2,000-employee department.

A spokesperson for board chairman Sharon Bulova confirms the determination of whether to choose a current consultant or recruit a new one should be made within the next month.

Bowers began aggressively shining a mirror on his own department after the disappearance of firefighter Nicole Mittendorff in April. It was brought to his attention that crude, anonymous posts about the firefighter-paramedic had been made in late 2015.

However, Bowers tells WTOP it may never be known if those anonymous posts about the 31-year-old Mittendorff could be attributed to department employees.

“Without a subpoena and a criminal case, there’s only so far we can go [in investigating who posted the remarks about Mittendorff], so I have to be straight about that,” Bowers said, in the Monday interview.

In a WTOP interview last week, Mittendorff’s husband, Steve Mittendorff and sister Jennifer Clardy Chalmers said they had no evidence that Nicole Mittendorff committed suicide because of the bullying, although she was aware of the postings.

“I think what we’re now seeing is those dots are not connected,” said Bowers, echoing the comments of Mittendorff’s sister, Jennifer Clardy Chalmers, in that interview. “We can’t say for sure, but I can say it’s looking like it was more personal.”

Steve Mittendorff’s employer, Virginia State Police, is awaiting a final report from the medical examiner before officially closing the case, although the criminal investigation into her disappearance and death were closed after the preliminary autopsy determined Mittendorff had killed herself, said police spokesperson Corinne Geller.

Steve is a First Sergeant/Area Office commander in the state police Bureau of Field Operations.

Chief: ‘I’m responsible. Period.’

Though internal and external scrutiny of Fairfax County Fire and Rescue began during Mittendorff’s disappearance, which ended tragically, Bowers says he is embracing the opportunity to improve the department by inviting the observations from a third party.

Bowers said he was not aware of the online postings about Mittendorff before her disappearance.

While an outside entity will head the assessment, Bowers says he will be able to concentrate on improving day-to-day and long-term conditions within the agency.

“I’m responsible. Period,” Bowers said. “Everything that goes on in the department, whether I know or don’t know, I am responsible. I’m the chief.”

At times, “another set of eyes is needed,” Bowers acknowledged.

“Sometimes when you just look at yourself, you see things that are obvious, but sometimes there are other things,” said Bowers. “I think it’s the right thing to do, it’s the only thing to do right now.”

Bowers said he believes an outsider’s perspective will be beneficial.

“It’ll help me, as the fire chief. It’ll help the fire department. It’ll help this county,” he said.

While he hears and understands the public’s desire for assurances the department is on sound footing, Bowers says the assessment shouldn’t be rushed.

“It’s gonna take a good while,” said Bowers. “It could take up to a year to get this completely done, top/down and bottom/up.”

“The most important thing is I want it right, and I want it accurate, and I want it transparent,” Bowers said.

Change starts now

While there may be a few “bad apples,” Bowers said he believes “the overwhelming majority, if not all” of his employees perform their duties professionally and respectfully.

“My belief is that we’re not upside down,” Bowers said. “My belief is that we’re gonna find some things that we probably, without question, need to strengthen and improve upon.”

He said he expects additional training will be an outcome of the assessment.

Bowers said he will not wait until the review is completed before ensuring a comfortable and legal work environment.

“I’m having everybody review our current policies on sexual harassment and code of conduct,” said Bowers, adding there will be a mandatory officers’ meeting at the end of June to discuss sexual harassment, equal employment opportunities and the law.

Bowers said the department’s official in charge of professional standards, Guy Morgan, remains on administrative leave. Morgan, who is in charge of investigating complaints, reportedly had Facebook posts picturing scantily-clad women. The posts were first reported by WUSA 9.

Morgan did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

As he attempts to simultaneously assess and tweak potential problems within his department, Bowers said he remains dedicated to doing what he can for Nicole Mittendorff’s husband and family.

“I want to make sure her legacy is what she did here to serve the residents of Fairfax County, and her brother and sister firefighters,” Bowers said.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a general assignment reporter with WTOP since 1997. He says he looks forward to coming to work every day, even though that means waking up at 3:30 a.m.

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