WASHINGTON — An effort by the union representing Fairfax County firefighters to reassure the community that bullying and workplace harassment aren’t commonplace struck a painful nerve for Steve Mittendorff — the husband of a former county firefighter who was the victim of online bullying and who died by suicide last year.
Steve Mittendorff said the union, which issued a statement on Friday and indirectly referred to Nicole Mittendorff, was out of line and should not have discussed the reasons for his wife’s suicide.
“The decision to take her life was her decision and a personal one, for which the Local 2068 is not authorized to speak on,” said Mittendorff, in a statement shared with WTOP. “This media release (by the fire union) only compounds the grief our family experiences and prevents us from healing.”
The statement posted on the firefighters union’s website stated: “This suicide was NOT a result of any type of harassment or bullying occurring within the FCFRD workplace.”
“This tragic suicide was a culmination of life events, personal struggles and factors outside the FCFRD that family, friends, and co-workers were untrained to recognize and unaware of at the time,” the statement continued.
The union issued the statement several days after WTOP reported that Fire Chief Richard Bowers has been investigating an anonymous report of a supervisor who recently condoned bullying to the families of new recruits.
According to the union statement, “There has been much speculation, frustration, and anger surrounding this subject and we feel we should provide the facts as we know them.”
Mittendorff and his wife’s sister Jennifer Clardy Chalmers had told WTOP previously they doubted that her suicide was directly related to online bullying that was disclosed after she disappeared.
Still, Steve Mittendorff said it was not the union’s story to tell. He called the statement “deeply disappointing.”
“They speculate on the causative factors and behaviors that led my wife to die by suicide,” said Mittendorff. “Clearly, the Executive Staff of the Fairfax County Professional Firefighters & Paramedics IAFF Local 2068 lack the sensitivity required to support those left behind and affected by suicide.”
Mittendorff said the union could have detailed “all the proactive steps being taken to improve the culture of the department.” But “their decision to publish portions of this release pertaining to Nicole only act as a continuation and brings more attention to the horrible things mentioned on various social media platforms regarding her.”
Shortly after Nicole Mittendorff’s death, Chief Bowers launched an investigation into cyberbullying in his department, citing crude online comments about the firefighter/paramedic, supposedly posted by fellow firefighters.
A year after her death, Bowers told WTOP investigators were unable to determine who posted the comments. And a departmentwide review found that a third of its employees reported instances of bullying and nearly a quarter reported instances of sexual harassment.
“Following firefighter Nicole Mittendorff’s tragic death, Fairfax County conducted a thorough, independent evaluation that revealed the need to address some behavior issues that exist in some, not all, areas of the Department,” said Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova, in a statement. “It is incumbent on the IAFF Local 2068 to work with the fire chief to foster culture change where such change is needed.”
John Niemiec, president of the union, told WTOP he spoke with Steve Mittendorff.
“He had some concerns about the wording, so we did end up changing it,” said Niemiec. “We’re just trying to be sensitive.”
Niemiec said the statement was largely predicated by the recent story about the apparent condoning of bullying during a Family Day event at the fire academy.
“We’re just trying to set the record straight,” Niemiec said.
“I fully support the fine men and women of the Fairfax Fire & Rescue Department,” Mittendorff said in his statement. “I understand and support that a strong message needed to be given in response to the negative media coverage, however it should have been approached with more sensitivity for those who continue to grieve.”
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