‘The buck stops here’: New Fairfax Co. fire chief on harassment-free workplace

The new Fairfax County, Virginia, fire chief says he is ultimately responsible for ensuring a welcoming work environment — free of sexual harassment and bullying.

WASHINGTON — Almost 90 days into his new job as fire chief in Virginia’s Fairfax County, John Butler remains committed to ensuring a welcoming, respectful workplace, despite an earlier assessment which determined the department’s culture included instances of sexual harassment and bullying.

“The buck stops here,” Butler told the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Public Safety Committee, during a brief presentation Tuesday. “I’m the women’s program officer — it starts and it stops here.”

In his first three months on the job, Butler said he listened and talked extensively with supervisors and rank and file employees to understand a 2017 third-party workplace climate assessment, authorized by the county Board of Supervisors.

John S. Butler, former Howard County, Maryland, fire chief, has been appointed to be the next chief of Fairfax County Fire and Rescue. (Courtesy Fairfax County)
John S. Butler, chief of Fairfax County Fire and Rescue. (Courtesy Fairfax County)

“There’s a perceived — or real — lack of trust, and some transparency issues,” Butler told the panel.

“There was some good work happening before I got here, there’s room for improvement, and I think we’re working on that — I’m biased, but I think we’re working on it.

“That climate assessment was done before I got here. It doesn’t go on the shelf, or just disappear into the abyss. We are going to address some of those areas,” Butler said.

He told the committee he is working with Deputy County Executive David Rohrer and County Executive Bryan Hill to prioritize the issues.

“Some of them are achievable and reachable, some will take more time and more funding,” Butler said.

In speaking with women’s groups within the department, and with female employees individually, Butler said he has been seeking to understand the scope of the department’s problems.

“Many issues I’ve come across, I’m finding are somewhat institutional, enterprise-wise in the fire service. Some things I’m hearing and I’m thinking ‘I’ve seen this before and I’ve heard this before,'” Butler said.

At some point, Butler said a substantive review will be done to quantify change in the department.

“The climate assessment is a starting point — there’s got to be some time to effect change,” Butler said. “In 24 to 36 months there will be some time to address some of the issues that were identified.”

Several members of the public safety committee voiced support for Butler’s two-to-three years timetable to re-evaluate the department’s progress.

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