FAIRFAX, Va. — Fairfax County’s fire chief has vowed to root out bullying and harassment within the department since a female firefighter committed suicide one year ago, but new allegations that a supervisor condoned such behavior — explaining to the families of new recruits that “boys will be boys” — reveal how difficult it will be to change the firehouse culture.
“I received an anonymous letter of complaint, and currently we’re looking into the matter,” said Chief Richard Bowers, in an interview at department headquarters about the supervisor’s reported statements. “Certainly we would not tolerate any of that type of discussion if, in fact, it did occur.”
The unsigned letter claims that a supervisor said that practical jokes go on in fire stations as he addressed family members of recruits during an April 21 Family Night event at the Fire and Rescue Academy.
“Some might call it ‘hazing,’ some might call it ‘bullying.’ ‘Millennial’s have thin skin,’ and ‘boys will be boys’,” the letter said, quoting the unnamed supervisor.
In addition to Bowers, copies of the letter were sent to other fire and county government leaders, as well as WTOP. The purported Fairfax County return address printed on the letter lists a street that doesn’t exist.
“The individual is assigned to our behavioral health section,” said Bowers, of the supervisor, whose behavior was described in the letter. “The purpose of him being there was to educate the family, and take any questions from the family, with respect to their loved ones, and how they’ll be integrated into the fire and rescue department at the fire station level.”
Citing the ongoing internal investigation, despite repeated questions, Bowers would not disclose whether the male supervisor said the words or whether he expressed the opinions detailed in the letter, even though other department members were present during the supervisor’s comments.
“If that was the message that was delivered, it’s very obvious to me that that is not the position of the fire and rescue department, it is not the position of this fire chief,” said Bowers. “It is a zero-tolerance policy for any of those things, if in fact it was said.”
Bowers said the investigation into the comments will be completed “very soon.”
“Previously, we have held people accountable. We’ll continue to hold people accountable, up to discipline including dismissal,” Bowers said.
“We have to change the culture”
Bowers began to aggressively shine a mirror on his own department in May 2016 following the disappearance of firefighter-paramedic Nicole Mittendorff. It was brought to Bowers’ attention that crude, anonymous posts about Mittendorff had been made in late 2015.
Mittendorff committed suicide several months later, in April 2016.
In an exclusive interview, her husband and sister told WTOP they did not believe online bullying prompted Mittendorff to kill herself.
In the May 2016 interview, Jennifer Clardy Chalmers said her sister’s decision to commit suicide “is a piece in a very large and complicated puzzle in someone who was very complicated and obviously ill, but hid it from everyone.”
Soon after, Fairfax County announced it would hire an outside consultant to look at the workplace atmosphere within the nearly 2,000-employee fire department.
The “Organizational Climate Review Report,” released in February 2017, determined Bowers had work ahead of him.
“Specific to this study, poor leadership behaviors are driving a negative culture,” the report said. “These behaviors include a lack of accountability, lack of integrity, lack of consistency and most importantly a lack of trust.”
“The values and ethical behaviors that the Fire Chief is trying to implement are not consistently demonstrated by Senior Command (Battalion Chiefs and above),” said the report, prepared by Titan Group.
This week, Bowers told WTOP the culture within the department has to change.
“The (new) culture is, ‘do the right thing, all the time’,” Bowers said of harassment and bullying. “How we’re going to begin to bridge that cultural change that needs to occur in this department, is through training, education, prevention and accountability.”
First steps toward change
“We will educate everybody on what is the law, what are the things in the workplace you are to do, and what not to do, and more important to focus on treating everybody respectfully,” Bowers said. “That’s a very easy thing to do, that doesn’t cost anybody a dime.”
Approximately a third of those who participated in the fire department’s assessment reported that they had witnessed bullying or harassing behavior on the job.
Bowers said supervisors will need to take a more active role to head-off the improper behavior.
“They’re the ones that have to step in if someone is out of line, and take the immediate action to stop what is happening, and make the appropriate notifications from there,” Bowers said.
Although the department has been the subject of a few recent lawsuits alleging harassment, Bowers said the department has not received any complaints about hazing or bullying in the past year.
Support from Mittendorff’s family
Asked about the ongoing investigation into the unnamed supervisor’s comments, Nicole Mittendorff’s sister said she believes the department is taking positive steps.
“To my knowledge, Fairfax County Fire Rescue has worked very hard and made great strides in the past year in areas such as training and policy, but challenges remain,” said Chalmers. “I hope the fire department continues to work to ensure a safe and inclusive workplace culture for all its personnel.”
Chalmers, who helped bring awareness to her sister’s disappearance though a Facebook page, said she is getting more involved in formal suicide prevention awareness programs and events.
“I focus on suicide prevention awareness and celebrating the life of my sister,” said Chalmers. “I’ll leave the fire department to the experts.”