Memo to iWomen: Stay Home!

By: Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

There’s been a firestorm of comments across social media following last week’s release of Battalion Chief Kathleen Stanley’s letter of resignation as the “point person” (What does that even mean?) for the Women’s Program within the Fairfax County (Va.) Fire Rescue Department. That’s the same department, you’ll recall, where Firefighter/Paramedic Nicole Mittendorf was cyber-bullied to the point she felt suicide was her only option, an option that she took in April 2016.

In response to her death, did the department launch a full-scale investigation to find out what happened and who was responsible for such a tragedy? No, instead the department’s leaders commissioned a third-party study to assess the organizational culture and attitudes within the department (Because that’s what real leaders do when faced with a huge problem. They commission studies by third-party consultants. Joke: What’s the definition of a consultant? Someone you hire to tell you what time it is using your watch).

My fire service colleague and fellow contributor to FireRescue1.com, Linda Willing, wrote a powerful piece of prose where she provided some analysis for the report. Willing’s assessment was that the report, which while including many valuable insights and recommendations, fell short when it came to really dealing with the primary issue: personal accountability.

Enter the International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services

Coincidently, the International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services (iWomen) has its iWomen International Conference 2018 scheduled for May 2018 in (wait for it!) Fairfax County, Virginia. And the hosting agency is…the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department. Yes, you read that right. The same fire and rescue department mentioned at the start of this article.

Now some iWomen members have questioned the wisdom of going forth with the planned conference in Fairfax County with the fire and rescue department as the host agency. The iWomen leadership put out a press release reaffirming its commitment to hold the conference in Fairfax County.

Stand by for blistering commentary for a 60-year-old, white, male retired battalion chief in 1…2…3

What are you ladies thinking of? You want to show support for Battalion Chief Stanley and the rest of the women of the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department? Then announce that you’ll not bring the iWomen conference to Fairfax County until the fire chief and his senior staff are gone.

Do any of you truly believe that showing up and conducting the conference is the right response? You would be the “visiting team” playing a game on the fire chief’s “home court” and the “referees” are all “homers.” And we all know how those games usually turn out.

Listen to the language of other women firefighter commentators (on Facebook):

“If these accusations [by Battalion Chief Stanley] prove to be true…”

WTF? Battalion Chief Stanley has put herself out there as a modern-day Joan of Arc and people who talk like that are helping to “pile up the wood” for her burning at the stake.

Some of you are just as tone-deaf as the Chairperson of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors—a woman for crissakes! –who’s standing by “her man” and attempting to “water down” Chief Stanley’s documentation of events as “accusations.”

Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chair Sharon Bulova says she takes all concerns seriously and has gone through each of Stanley’s complaints with Fire Chief Bowers.  “We have a fantastic fire department and members have been working very hard to bring changes,” said Bulova.  Bulova said she has not talked to Stanley about her allegations but believes they are “not a correct representation of the work that going on.” (Source: WUSA-News 9. http://www.wusa9.com/news/local/fairfax/top-woman-leader-in-fairfax-fire-dept-resigns-in-scathing-letter-to-chief/512723943).

Take your conference to another location—preferably one with a woman fire chief—and use the media buzz over taking such drastic action as your platform to show Chief Stanley for the heroic figure she is and how women are not going to take it anymore. And demonstrate that women in the fire service are no longer interested in talking and “making nice” to try to effect change.

That strategy hasn’t been working and it’s not going to work. This is a watershed moment in history for women in the fire service. Here’s the department who did nothing to help Firefighter/Paramedic Nicole Mittendorf before she came to believe that suicide was her only option. They said they would change after that, but two years later you have a firefighter who feels comfortable enough to bring a penis-shaped water bottle into the fire station. And his mates feel comfortable enough to help him “customize” it using duct tape to give it testicles.

This situation with the iWomen’s conference should be addressed–in my humble opinon–with a total boycott of Fairfax County. It’s no longer just about the fire chief and his senior staff, not since the Chairperson of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors–a woman, no less–publicly stood by the fire chief and referred to Battalion Chief Stanley’s statements of facts as “accusations.”

And where’s the “call out” for all the male firefighters in Fairfax County? Where have they been for the past twoFairfax County Fire and Rescue and harassment years–since Nicole Mittendorf’s suicide? Why are they not standing up for their “sister” firefighters and demanding the fire chief’s firing?

Don’t go to Fairfax County. Actions speak louder than words. What will your actions be?

About Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

Battalion Chief (Ret.) Robert Avsec served with the men and women of the Chesterfield County (VA) Fire and EMS Department for 26 years. He’s now using his acquired knowledge, skills, and experiences as a freelance writer for FireRescue1.com and as the “blogger in chief” for this blog. Chief Avsec and his wife of 30+ years now make their home in Cross Lanes, WV. Contact him via e-mail, rpa1157@gmail.com.