The Big Read: Firefighter's sudden death a 'fire bell in the night'

By Justin Jouvenal

When Fairfax County, Virginia, firefighter Nicole Mittendorff died suddenly in April, a fellow firefighter likened the death to a "fire bell in the night" demanding an urgent response.

It is not known why the 31-year-old took her life, but Mittendorff's death stirred anger about lewd and harassing comments that had been made about her in a popular online forum. The messages, which appeared to have been posted by colleagues, reverberated painfully with women in firefighting locally and across the nation.

Now some are heeding that "bell".

Female firefighters from the highly regarded Fairfax department and others nationwide have come forward in the wake of Mittendorff's death, filing lawsuits and sharing stories that some say reveal festering problems with the treatment of women in a male-dominated field.

A top-ranking woman in Fairfax filed a lawsuit last month accusing department officials of failing to stop sexual harassment. A female colleague also recently sued, saying that she was ostracized for reporting that male firefighters were partying on a firetruck with Hooters waitresses.

A former paramedic with a Carroll County, Maryland, department wrote online about how she was regularly propositioned for sex by male colleagues. When she complained, she wrote, she was told in effect: "You're in a man's job, what do you expect?"

Many hope that Mittendorff's case and their own stories trigger changes, as have similar discussions about sexual assault on college campuses. Some fear that if issues of bullying and sexism are not addressed there could be other suicides.

"The culture that resides around women is that we're not supposed to actually be on the hose lines or driving the fire apparatus," said Cheri Zosh, a battalion chief in Fairfax. "That attitude of the past still resides in a large percentage of the nation."

William R. Metcalf, the former president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, called firefighting a "white guy's club." He said too few departments have made a sustained effort to welcome women.

"In a surprisingly large number of fire departments ... it's OK to harass and physically assault women and minorities - even rape women - in our fire stations," Metcalf wrote in 2014 in an open letter to the organization's membership that he said he could have written today because so little has changed.

Others think that such negative assessments are overblown and that women have made slow but steady progress within the field. Some female firefighters in Fairfax and other departments say they see few barriers to acceptance or advancement.

Fairfax County Fire Chief Richard R. Bowers Jr. declined to comment on specific allegations leveled against his department, citing ongoing litigation, but said that the department has worked hard to include women and said the proof is in the numbers.

The 1,400-member Fairfax department has about twice the number of female firefighters as the national average. Bowers said any large organization will encounter the type of issues Fairfax is facing.

"Do we have bad actors? We certainly probably do," Bowers said. "When those bad actors display something that is inappropriate, they are dealt with."

Firefighting remains among the nation's least-diverse professions along gender lines. In 2015, just 6 percent were female, while women made up 47 percent of the general workforce, according to federal statistics. In Fairfax, 165 firefighters are women, or about 12 percent.

The most recent national report on women in firefighting, published in 2008, found widespread challenges.

A survey that accompanied the report found that 85 percent of female firefighters reported being treated differently because of their gender, 65 percent said their department had no procedure for addressing discrimination, and 30 percent reported unwanted sexual advances.

The report, commissioned by a national women's firefighting organization, also found that more than half of the nation's fire departments had never had a paid female firefighter and that women were scarce at the highest ranks: Just 3 percent were led by a woman.

Grief turns to outrage

Nicole Mittendorff was assigned to Fairfax County Fire Station No. 32 in Fairfax Station. Photo / The Washington Post / Justin Jouvenal
Nicole Mittendorff was assigned to Fairfax County Fire Station No. 32 in Fairfax Station. Photo / The Washington Post / Justin Jouvenal

Nicole Mittendorff's face would soon be broadcast nationwide, but her disappearance began quietly April 13. She called in sick and sent texts to her family before abruptly vanishing.

The search for the Woodbridge, Virginia, woman quickly became national news and generated intense interest on social media. Her family and fellow Fairfax firefighters stood side byside at a tearful news conference asking for help locating her.

Her body was discovered about a week later in Shenandoah National Park and her death was ruled a suicide.

The grief over Mittendorff's death soon turned to outrage.

Anonymous and sexually suggestive messages about Mittendorff that were posted on the Web forum Fairfax Underground before her death were cited in news stories that raised concerns about the department's culture. The writers seemed to have inside knowledge of Fairfax County fire.

Suddenly, a department that was accustomed to saving people in distress was faced with an uncomfortable question: Had its firefighters contributed to the mental anguish that led Mittendorff to take her life?

Bowers announced an "aggressive" internal investigation to determine whether any of the department's firefighters wrote the posts. That probe remains ongoing, and Bowers said he has not determined the writers' identities.

Nicole Mittendorff's locker at Fairfax County Fire Station. Photo / The Washington Post / Justin Jouvenal
Nicole Mittendorff's locker at Fairfax County Fire Station. Photo / The Washington Post / Justin Jouvenal

Mittendorff's family did not respond to a request for comment but have said they thought she had put the posts behind her.

Still, the combination of a high-profile suicide and cyber-harassment touched a nerve and prompted raw conversations within a profession that has had high-profile struggles with gender issues.

"The tragic suicide death of Fairfax County Firefighter Nicole Mittendorff may end up being 'the one,'" Billy Goldfeder, a deputy chief in Ohio, wrote in an online message asking male firefighters to examine their treatment of female colleagues.

Ruth Anne Phillips, a former female firefighter living in Arkansas, was one of many who went online to vent about the "nasty, hateful" things she had seen in her department.

"I had a personal (Facebook) message from one of my brothers citing the Bible - 'women shall remain silent' and another one explaining to me why women shouldn't be firefighters,'" Phillips wrote.

Mittendorff's case comes after fire departments have been hit with dozens of gender discrimination and sexual harassment lawsuits in recent years and have been forced to pay out millions in settlements and jury awards.

Last year, the Justice Department reached a settlement with a small Florida department, which was accused of forcing a firefighter to fight a fire while pregnant. She suffered a miscarriage.

In 2013, a jury awarded a female firefighter in Ohio $1.7 million after she was sexually harassed. Testimony revealed the department didn't take sexual-harassment education seriously, showing firefighters training videos on a split screen with NASCAR races.

That same year a male firefighter in Arkansas was charged with the sexual assault of a female colleague, one of a number of such cases in the field.

Experts trace some of the problems to the tradition-bound culture of firefighting, which for decades was largely the province of men. Close quarters and long shifts created a fraternity-like environment in many fire stations.

Women began entering the world of professional firefighting only in the mid-'70s. Experts also said that haphazard recruiting of women, a lack of proper facilities and equipment, and physical tests geared toward men have kept the number of female firefighters low.

"You've got a very male-oriented service. You have a very physically demanding service," said Curt Varone, an lawyer and former firefighter who tracks complaints about gender discrimination in the field. "Both of those lend themselves to reaffirming in some men's eyes that women don't belong in the fire service. The fire service is steeped in tradition. There is resistance to change."

Judy Brewer, the nation's first professional female firefighter, said she saw positive changes in the field during her 26-year career with the Arlington County Fire Department, but it was uneven.

"I think it's a complete mixed bag," Brewer said. "I think some people feel like women are being shoved down their throats. Other places, if you can do the job, they are accepting."

A sudden death resonates in Fairfax

Patricia Tomasello poses for a portrait at her home in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Photo / The Washington Post / Nikki Kahn
Patricia Tomasello poses for a portrait at her home in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Photo / The Washington Post / Nikki Kahn

Mittendorff's death hit most forcefully with her female colleagues, such as Patricia Tomasello, who is one of a number of Fairfax County firefighters who have filed lawsuits or come forward to describe sexist treatment.

The veteran firefighter said that as a child, she would pester her brother to take her by the fire station near their home.

"I would tell my brother, 'I want to be a firefighter,' " Tomasello said. "He would say, 'There's no women firefighters.' "

Tomasello, who set out to prove those youthful taunts wrong in the mid-'90s, recalled feeling uncertain walking the halls of the Fairfax fire academy, which was lined with photographs of male firefighters.

But the true challenge wouldn't become apparent until she arrived on the job soon after. She recalled a colleague calling her a derogatory name for a woman and telling her that women were a distraction.

Patricia Tomasello shows off a plaque received for her service as a firefighter at her home in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Photo / The Washington Post / Nikki Kahn
Patricia Tomasello shows off a plaque received for her service as a firefighter at her home in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Photo / The Washington Post / Nikki Kahn

"It hit me like a rock," Tomasello said.

Tomasello alleges in her lawsuit filed in May that she was subjected to unwanted sexual advances, passed over for promotions and ostracized for reporting the incident involving the male firefighters on the firetruck with Hooters waitresses.

A statement released by the county said harassment claims are handled properly.

"All county employees are required to participate in training regarding sexual harassment and hostile work environments," the statement read. "Allegations of harassment are taken seriously and fully investigated."

Bowers said the department has made changes. They include revised policies for investigating sexual harassment claims, mental-health training and a summit on suicide prevention. He said that one of the efforts - handing out pocket-size cards with suicide hotline numbers - helped head off another suicide in the department.

The same month Tomasello filed her suit, the department suspended the official who ran its Office of Professional Standards for posting lewd images on his Facebook page. Guy Morgan remains on administrative leave.

Magaly Hernandez, another female firefighter, also filed a lawsuit in May, claiming that a captain had made sexual advances, stalked her using department software and isolated her.

"Isolating Hernandez from her colleagues quite literally put Hernandez's life in danger, as firefighters must rely on one another to survive life-threatening emergency situations," the suit read.

Hernandez says the department did nothing to discipline Capt. Jon Bruley and that she was retaliated against for coming forward. Neither Hernandez nor Bruley responded to requests for comment, but a county attorney denied Hernandez's claims in a response filed to her lawsuit.

One of the highest-ranking women in the department became the latest to file suit last month. Zosh, the battalion chief, says that officials at the top of the command staff failed to address Hernandez's claims.

She alleges that Bowers did not consider her for a deputy chief position because she spoke on Hernandez's behalf.

Bowers denied Zosh's claims in an interview before her suit was filed.

Zosh said discrimination is not endemic in the department, but it exists in certain firehouses and shifts.

A group of female firefighters in Fairfax said the lawsuits don't represent their experience with the department.

"For me, I don't see myself 'as a woman' when I come to work; I'm a firefighter," Alisha Reakoff wrote in an email. "I've never felt different or separate from anyone."

After Bowers announced his investigation into who posted the comments about Mittendorff in April, comments about another female firefighter appeared on Fairfax Underground.

Tomasello said whatever the outcome of her suit, she hopes it puts an end to such harassment. Tomasello said she was touched by Mittendorff's death because of her own struggles as a woman in the department.

"I could have been Nicole Mittendorff." she said.

Where to get help:

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
Youthline: 0800 376 633
Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.
Canterbury Support Line: 0800 777 846

- Washington Post

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