By: Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer
For the last week or so, my fire service colleague in the UK, Antonia Nicol, an operational leading firefighter and equipment officer with the London Fire Brigade, has been posting on LinkedIn about the sexism and misogyny in the London Fire Brigade and continuing personal attacks on her being posted on social media. Here’s her latest from December 26, 2022:
Nicole Mittendorff joined the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department in 2013 as a firefighter–paramedic. She was described by her family as a vibrant personality whose presence could fill up a room and put anyone at ease
On April 13, 2016, she unexpectedly called in sick to work and sent texts to her family before abruptly vanishing. Her body was discovered a week later on the 21st of April 2016, in Shenandoah (Va.) National Park and her death was ruled a suicide.
The grief over Nicole’s death turned to outrage when anonymous sexually suggestive messages about Nicole were posted on a forum online page called Fairfax Underground before her death was even published in news stories. This raised concerns about the fire department’s culture.
The posters of the vile messages had inside knowledge of the county fire department. They showed themselves as firefighters and lambasted Nicole’s reputation as a wife and a firefighter, using sexual slurs and insults when referring to her.
An “aggressive” internal investigation was launched to find out if any of the department’s firefighters wrote the posts. Guy Morgan ran the office of Professional Standards at the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department which investigates workplace misconduct and he was found to be one of the people posting lewd images of women online and making disgusting comments.
Guy Morgan is also mentioned in a sexual harassment lawsuit filed on May 6, 2016, by a Fairfax female firefighter Magaly Hernandez against her supervisor Captain Jon Bruley for harassing her. Guy Morgan had conducted an “inept investigation” and facilitated the discipline of Magaly Hernandez, the victim.
In August 2016 female firefighters from Fairfax Fire and Rescue and other fire departments nationwide in the U.S. came forward in the wake of Nicole’s death filing lawsuits and sharing stories that reveal festering problems with the treatment of women in a male-dominated field.
In the aftermath of Mittendorf’s suicide, Fairfax had appointed Battalion Chief Kathleen Stanley to deal with rampant sexism and sexual harassment within the department. A two-decade Fairfax Fire and Rescue veteran, Kathleen had already sued the fire department successfully in 2005 when she and other women challenged a pattern of discrimination and harassment.
The department had forced female firefighters to sleep in unheated station closets, made some shower in makeshift converted urinals and refused to punish a man who slapped a female firefighter across the face with a piece of ham while making sexually suggestive remarks
Battalion Chief Kathleen Stanley stepped down in 2018 as the leader of the department’s women’s advocacy group.
In a letter made public, Kathleen stated that the department “tolerates and often defends sexual harassment, retaliation and maintains a hostile work environment”
I relate to the story of Nicole Mittendorff because I’ve been harassed online by firefighters and their friends for 5 years now which almost ended in my suicide in July this year. And I know my harassers would have rejoiced in the same way with disgusting comments had I taken my own life.
I posted the following reply to this COURAGEOUS firefighter in the UK who continues to “shine a light” on the sexism and misogyny that apparently “alive and well” in the London Fire Brigade and other fire brigades in the UK.
Antonia, do whatever you must do but PLEASE do not let the ba$tards prevail by taking your own life! I hope that the supportive comments in this space are helping you to keep your “head above water!”
But it’s not solely a problem in the fire service culture in the UK. Sexism and misogyny are both “alive and well” in too many fire departments around the globe, including the U.S. and Canada. Read a piece I wrote in 2019 for my blog, Men could stop sexual harassment in the fire service tomorrow.
I believed it then and I believe it now: Men the in the fire service can stop sexual harassment and eradicate misogyny in the fire service tomorrow. I wrote another article on this disturbing topic for FireRescue1 in April of 2021, The special obligation of male firefighters to stop sexual harassment in the fire service, the subtitle of which was, Too many male firefighters are still not listening, especially when the message is coming from a woman.
Well, this message today is coming from me, a 65-year-old white male and retired fire department battalion chief. Where are the men in the fire service who are willing to step up and be the champions for change? Where are the men who are willing to say “enough is enough” to the sexism and misogyny that continues to be a plaque on the profession that I love?