More troubling claims against Fairfax Co. fire department

WASHINGTON — The Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department is once again getting negative attention for allegations related to harassment as two high-ranking women claim the Northern Virginia agency retaliated against them for speaking out.

Battalion chiefs Kathleen Stanley and Cheri Zosh, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, filed charges Wednesday with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against the department and Fairfax County.

The EEOC is a federal agency that handles such cases.

“The [Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department] is charged with serving the public, but instead it’s punishing two of its very best,” said Gillian Thomas, an ACLU attorney. “If the highest-achieving women in the [Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department] are hung out to dry when they raise concerns, what kind of message does that send to the rest of the women in the department?”

According to the charges, the department “violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits sex discrimination in employment and retaliation against those who oppose such conduct.”

Stanley claims she faced abuse on social media from her union, and a demotion from Fairfax County leadership, after she stepped down as head of the fire department’s women’s program.

In late January, she wrote in her resignation letter that she was leaving the position because the department “tolerates and often defends sexual harassment, retaliation and a hostile work environment.”

Zosh alleges she was denied multiple positions, including a promotion, for advocating on behalf of a firefighter who filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the department claiming she was sexually harassed for years.

According to the charges, the department punished the chiefs for speaking out against “systemic discrimination against female firefighters, including pervasive sexual harassment.”

The department was hit with harassment allegations and lawsuits from women who came forward after the 2016 suicide of firefighter Nicole Mittendorff.

An investigation into her death turned up numerous sexist comments written about her online.

In February 2017, a study of the department found that 37 percent of its members reported either being bullied or witnessing someone who was bullied.

More than 23 percent reported experiencing or seeing sexual harassment.

Richard Bowers, the former fire chief, announced earlier this year that he would retire following Stanley’s resignation letter and calls for his resignation.

The department released a statement to WTOP about the allegations, saying:

“Fairfax County takes these complaints very seriously. Any newly identified issues within the Fire and Rescue Department will be immediately and thoroughly investigated by the county and in cooperation with the EEOC. The leadership of Fairfax County is committed to a workplace free of harassment, bullying, retaliation and any actions that contribute to an unhealthy work environment.

“As the search for a new Fire and Rescue Chief continues, we are focused on identifying a leader who will help the department move forward on the action plan recommendations developed in response to last year’s cultural assessment. The new chief will be committed to ensuring a positive work environment for all members of the department.

“The county continues to work hard to address the cultural issues that have been identified within the department, in collaboration with the action plan work groups established in 2017. Specific strategies and policy changes are being implemented on an ongoing basis to transform our culture. With leadership, communication, accountability and policy change we continue to move our Fire and Rescue Department forward.”

WTOP’s Patrick Roth contributed to this report.

Nick Iannelli

Nick Iannelli can be heard covering developing and breaking news stories on WTOP.

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