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.