A missed opportunity for women firefighters

By: Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

Back in February 2018 I asked you not to go.

In that post I implored you—the membership of the International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services (iWomen)–to take your annual conference somewhere other than Fairfax County, Virginia. But you went anyway.

Yes, that Fairfax County, where Firefighter/Paramedic Nicole Mittendorf took her own life in April 2016 after being cyber-bullied by some of her fellow male firefighters.

Yes, that Fairfax County where Mittendorf’s death brought forth numerous accusations of sexual harassment and discrimination stretching from fire stations to the leadership of the department.

And yes, that Fairfax County where earlier this year Battalion Chief Kathleen Stanley–the woman put in charge of the women’s program by former Chief Richard Bowers—resigned from that post in a scathing letter to Chief Bowers citing his lack of leadership and lack of progress on women’s issues within the department (That letter was subsequently leaked to the public and went viral on social media).

But after some public discuss on social media, you decided to go. Here’s an excerpt from a press release back on February 1, 2018 from iWomen Vice-President, Battalion Chief Carol Brown, announcing that decision:

 “My emotions have ranged from angry to disgusted to sadness. I have come out the other side with courage and resolve. We were assured by the Chief Bowers that FCFRD had changed and that he wanted to showcase that change to the firefighting community [Emphasis added]. We realize that we took a chance but wanted to support his efforts, and we still do, even though these current accusations. We have no plans to change the conference location but will continue to work with the leadership of FCFRD to ensure an excellent conference and to empower women firefighters from around the world to descend on Fairfax in May and show what powerful, capable, and strong women have to offer the fire service.”

Read the full press release

The other shoe drops

But just as the iWomen conference was getting underway, a 36-page report was unveiled in the form of a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The ACLU filed its first federal sexual harassment complaint of the #MeToo movement with charges against Fairfax County and Fairfax County Fire Rescue and the Fairfax County

Kathleen Stanley, left, and Cheri Zosh, battalion chiefs for the Fairfax County Fire Department, filed federal discrimination charges on Wednesday. Credit: Jared Soares for The New York Times

firefighters union, Local 2068 of the International Association of Fire Fighters.

The charges were filed on behalf of Battalion Chiefs Cheri Zosh and Kathleen Stanley (Yes, the same Chief Stanley), two of the highest-ranking women in the Fairfax County Fire Department. The national civil rights organization is accusing Fairfax County leadership of retaliation over sexual harassment complaints.

Read More: The Fairfax, Virginia, Fire Department Is Sexist

So, how did the conference work out for iWomen? I understand that it was a great educational, learning, and networking opportunity for all the women who attended. But what about this statement from your iWomen website:

What is iWomen? An interactive non-profit network, iWomen provides education, support and advocacy for fire service women [Emphasis added].

You lost your “bully pulpit” because you weren’t out in front of the ACLU’s action. But more importantly, where was your support and advocacy for fire service women, especially those women in the Fairfax County Fire Rescue Department?

Did your leadership hold a press conference to address the issues? Did they put out a press release showing their support for Battalion Chiefs Stanley and Zosh and the other women firefighters within the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department (who are likely to experience even greater retaliation and harassment because of the ACLU’s complaint)?

The investigation that never happened

Dave Statter spent 38 years in broadcasting in the Washington, DC area before retiring in June of 2010. Dave now runs STATter911 Communications, LLC. Click on the image for more STATter911.com

Many people in the Fairfax County area—including my First Arriving Network colleague and fellow blogger, Dave Statter—have been calling for a truly independent, no-holds-barred investigation into Mittendorf’s suicide, the and accusations of sexual harassment and discrimination, and Chief Stanley’s allegations. Statter, in particular, championed having such a report completed and ready to present to the attendees at this past week’s International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services conference.

But that didn’t happen.

Read Statter’s coverage of these issues

To be perfectly blunt, did you publicly confront the “school yard bully”? No, you did not.

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.