The Fairfax, Virginia, Fire Department Is Sexist

I have spent the past 27 years of my life as a firefighter, most of it with the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department. In addition to serving the community where I grew up, my career took me to earthquake-damaged Haiti with the Urban Search and Rescue team. Later, I received an executive fellowship with the federal intelligence community and helped train fire departments across the country in how to respond to terrorism. In the course of my work, I became one of the most decorated first responders in the nation. 

But now, because I called out the FRD for its discrimination against women and its culture of sexual harassment, my career has come crashing down.

When I returned to the FRD in the spring of 2016 after my fellowship, I was on a high, feeling optimistic about creating positive change for our department’s future leaders. A few weeks after my return in the spring of 2016, a young  firefighter named  Nicole Mittendorff took her own life. It turned out that she had been harassed on an anonymous website by people claiming to be her male co-workers. In response to the media scrutiny over the department’s sexist culture, I was named to the long-vacant position of women's program officer.

I knew firsthand how important it was to create a culture that’s more inclusive for women firefighters. Ever since Judy Brewer became America’s first female firefighter 45 years ago, women have been hazed in the fire service, including sabotaged oxygen tanks and glass in their boots. Today, fewer than four percent of the nation’s firefighters are women.  One landmark study found that the majority of them face differential treatment, wear ill-fitting safety gear meant for male bodies, work in departments with no anti-discrimination procedures, and witness disrespectful treatment of female leaders.

In Fairfax, I’ve been trying for a long time to tackle similar problems. In 2005, I joined with a group of FRD women to sue the department over a wide range of disparities, from hiring to promotions to harassment. We settled a year later, in exchange for promises that things would change.  Although a report published in 2017 found that FRD is on par with the national average of women in the rank and file, we still lag far behind in command staff. That’s despite five more sex discrimination lawsuits filed against the department since it settled mine.

After the media attention surrounding Nicole’s death receded, the fire department returned to “business as usual,” except this time the usual was far worse. Because of my new title, women colleagues came to me to report harassment and other forms of discrimination in the department related to promotions, inadequate firehouse sleeping quarters and bathrooms, and unequal access to training, among other issues. To hear about FRD men bringing penis-shaped water bottles into a fire station, or openly leering at women’s bodies, or bending the rules to promote less-qualified men while women’s careers stalled – it was heartbreaking. I shared these and other stories with the FRD leadership but they were received with indifference if not hostility.

As things got worse for women in the department, so did my rapport with the fire chief and after two years of being unable to make any progress against the deeply embedded discrimination, I resigned from the women’s program officer role.

I thought relinquishing the position would make my life easier. Unfortunately, my resignation letter was leaked to the press. And when my accusations became public, the department went into damage control mode.  The leaders of my union – Local 2068, to which I had loyally paid dues for a quarter century – started a smear campaign in the members’ Facebook group, calling for me to be expelled. The Fairfax County Executive, Bryan Hill, stated at a press conference that the fire department does not have a harassment problem.

The day after the county and FRD publicly repudiated my allegations, a group of mostly junior women firefighters released a report  falsely claiming they had interviewed all of the women in the department and that 95 percent of them claimed they hadn’t faced gender discrimination in the past five years. (A report by an outside auditor just one year ago, however, found nearly a quarter of FRD members surveyed had witnessed or experienced sexual harassment.)  

Fairfax County officials said they would investigate the claims I made in my resignation letter, but it proved an empty effort. After the rushed “investigation,” during which they failed to interview women I’d suggested as witnesses, they declared that virtually all of the issues I raised had been addressed.  

County officials next told me I should finish my career outside the department, without even offering a reason. When I declined, they tried to force my hand: I was alienated, left off invitations to mandatory meetings, and even issued a non-functioning computer. Eventually, the county offered me the choice of three entry-level positions. Only after my attorneys intervened did these “options” get taken off the table. 

I’ve devoted my career to the FRD.  It’s been a privilege, and honor, to work with so many great people.  I want to leave the department better for women than I found it 27 years ago. That’s why it’s so heartbreaking to come to terms with the fact that, despite the lip service they gave to the media, the leadership never intended to change the sexist culture that alienated Nicole Mittendorff and so many others.

So with the help of the ACLU and ACLU of Virginia, I am suing the FRD for sex discrimination. I'm proud to be a firefighter, and I'm proud of the women around the country who put on the uniform despite the obstacles we face. Despite the efforts to silence me for doing the right thing, I refuse to stay quiet.

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Dr. Timothy Leary

The truth is that there are more gay men in the world than the statistics show. These gay men won't even admit to themselves that they are gay because of the prejudice against gays. They think "Not me, no way am I gay.". These very same, deeply in denial, gay men are the ones who lead the sexual harassment against women on the job. Of course some people will argue against what I have just stated. If those who disagree with me are male then these are probably the gay men I'm talking about.

Anonymous

?

Spartacus

You’re lost, Dr. Leary. The Gay Men Pity Party page is somewhere else.

Raquel

Her courage is truly inspiring. I am on your side, Kathleen Stanley! This is what feminism is. It's a shame it even has to be such a ridiculous and trying fight for respect and dignity every human being deserves.

Leatha Lewison ...

I am very proud of you for sticking it out and standing by your principals. Discrimination in any form is wrong and you should hold your head high like Rosa Parks did and know that you are doing the right thing. = )

Anonymous

Ok what she didn't tell you is , the coworkers that harassed Nicole were female. And she did not take her life because of bullying, she was bipolar and had attempted suicide before she ever entered the fire department.

Anonymous

People should really fact check before believeing this garbage. I don’t even know where to begin to start pointing out all of the false information provided by Stanley in this “blog”. It is all fake news and she is delusional.

Female Firefighter

The 3 females on my shift and all the females in my battalion, on my shift, we’re all interview by the woman’s association, and we all said that None of us have experienced harassment. I do not want to take away what happen in the past to some, but hat was in the past. Being apart of the fire service for 8 years, I have been a part of the shinanigans, fights, rumors, “hazes” and not once did I feel sexually harassed. If anything, I feel men are too scared to talk to the females due to this new climate. A lot of females also have a bad rap in the department, sleeping with fellow firefighters while on shift. One sneaking into the bunkroom window of an officer and was caught two times, yet they still work for the department? Now on both sides of the spectrums, there are male firefighters that have done the same, but the bottom line.... the department is spineless on repramending people. Some get 4x opportunity with the drinking program, yet they continue to fail; others were charged with true sexual harassment, yet they’re reinstated.... I have zero desire to become an officer... I do not want to deal with the bullshit, deal with the paperwork, and deal with the politics. You might have experienced things in your past, however.... that is not now... I feel the climate is worse because of the media and they’re twists of stories for numbers. Nicole’s death was tragic but her suicide note even stated it was not because of the department... I was on fairfax underground, but they’re trolls. People who have cyber courage and no balls to stand behind their allegations.

Anonymous

You are correct on so many points, but remember, just because it has not happened to you, does not mean is hasn't happened. Staying away from the officer role is a great idea to make your life easier and it will reduce your exposure to this crap, but it also eliminates you from commenting on what it is like to be a female officer in the fire department. Read the IAFC reports; newspapers, these kinds of thing are happening nationwide....it is NOT just Fairfax. And it is NOT just the past.

Anonymous

Do the men sleeping with the women also get a bad rap in the department? Are you equally as outraged that the man/men she is sleeping with are not being punished? I am especially concerned if the woman sleeping with the officer is a junior member of the department because that would be a potential abuse of power on the officer's part and could contribute to the atmosphere of harassment that the article writer is talking about.

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