FAIRFAX, Va. — As Fairfax County searches for its next fire chief, county leaders and a group of female firefighters say the time has come to move forward, after almost two years of scrutiny regarding claims of sexual harassment on the job.
Deputy County Executive for Public Safety David Rohrer and County Executive Bryan Hill released Rohrer’s 14-page report on his review of allegations made by Battalion Chief Kathleen Stanley when she resigned in January as interim women’s program officer for the department.
Stanley’s letter of resignation claimed “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.”
Rohrer said he investigated and addressed all allegations; his report found three of Stanley’s claims were substantiated, and three employees were disciplined. Citing privacy rights, Rohrer’s report did not name the employees or specify the punishment.
After a news conference, two female firefighters — members of the department’s Women’s Initiative Group — said they take county leaders at their word that the still-to-be-selected chief will ensure a harassment-free workplace.
“I think we definitely just need to move forward,” said technician Alisha Reakoff. “We need to stop looking at the things in the past.”
The Fairfax fire department came under extreme scrutiny in April 2016 after the disappearance and suicide of firefighter Nicole Mittendorff.
Shortly after Mittendorff’s death, Chief Richard Bowers launched an investigation into cyberbullying in the department, citing crude online comments about Mittendorff supposedly posted by fellow firefighters.
Last month, Bowers said he would retire April 30.
Despite the crude, sexualized online postings which stung Mittendorff, her husband, Steve, and Nicole’s sister Jennifer Clardy Chalmers told WTOP they doubted the postings “caused” her suicide.
“She never indicated — we don’t have any indication — that that played a huge role in her thinking; but we’ll never know,” said Chalmers.
After Tuesday’s news conference, Reakoff and technician Jennifer Hiner headed off a reporter’s question about Mittendorff’s suicide.
“We’re moving past that; we’re going from March 13 forward,” said Reakoff.
Hill said leadership and communication will be a priority qualification for the county’s new fire and rescue chief.
“Upper management was not talking to the troops,” Hill said, without mentioning Bowers or other assistant chiefs by name. “That is something we are going to address (in the selection of the new chief).”
“People need to understand why we’re going in a certain direction,” Hill said. “If we don’t explain that to them, yeah: Morale is going to be down.”
Rohrer, the county’s former police chief, said he is committed to making Fairfax County firehouses harassment-free for women.
“I want to ensure they feel safe, they feel nurtured, they feel respected, they feel treated fairly, and they have a chance, just like I had, to feel like they’re getting rewarded for what they do,” Rohrer said.
Hill said he hopes to have a new fire chief in place by the end of June.