The “False Narrative”
The third anniversary of the 2016 death of Fairfax County, Virginia, firefighter Nicole Mittendorff is just around the corner; it reverberates to this day after her suicide was linked to workplace bullying.
Within the Fairfax County, Virginia, Fire and Rescue Department (FRD) and in the firefighter and paramedic union, IAFF Local 2068, to say that, to infer a connection, is to engage in, as they will quickly remind you, the “false narrative.”
To suggest that Nicole Mittendorff’s death by suicide is in anyway connected to her horrible cyber-bullying or a pervasive atmosphere of sexual harassment, is to admit that the members of the FRD and the union partially own it; as a result, it must be denied at all costs.
And deny they do.
In an online forum called Fairfax Underground, someone writing under the pseudonym “Techie 7” made sexually explicit comments about Mittendorff; Techie 7 was shortly joined by “Lordy lordy”, “Sunday Bingo”, “Tuesday Bingo”, “M432”, “Slime Lime” and others, all hiding behind their fake names as they disparaged Mittendorff and women generally.
At the time, former FRD fire chief Richard Bowers said, “I would like to take a minute to address the local web forum posts that so many of you have been discussing regarding firefighter Nicole Mittendorff. We at Fairfax Fire and Rescue are aware of the posts and are looking into the matter. I assure you that my department cannot and will not tolerate bullying of any kind.”
Neither the FRD nor the County tried hard to identify those bullying because to do so would validate the complaints of other women employees faced with a culture of sexual harassment and intimidation.
Regarding the cause of Nicole’s death, Corinne N. Geller with the Virginia State Police (VSP), said, “The Fairfax Underground posts didn’t appear to be a factor in Mittendorff’s death.”
This comment by a police official, apparently unschooled in either mental health or the causes of responder suicide, is the sum and substance used by those who assert that bullying by those connected to the FRD or union is a false narrative.
It also serves as a failed attempt to surgically separate the cyber-bullying from the predominant atmosphere of sexual harassment in the FRD.
The VSP comment is a precious but fatally flawed holy grail, unproven and unexamined, which FRD members clutch like treasure though Nicole’s husband, Steve, summarily refutes that conclusion.
Steve has said, “I don’t think we’ll ever know whether or not online bullying had a significant impact on the decision she made. The only person who could answer that is her, and she’s not here anymore.”
In fact, Steve went on to call for Bower’s resignation, “WTOP reported that Steve Mittendorf, called for a change in leadership shortly after Battalion Chief Kathleen Stanley resigned in a scathing letter to Chief Richard Bowers, alleging that the department had a “false commitment” to making female firefighters feel equal in the workplace.”
Chief Stanley said, “Fairfax County Fire and Rescue tolerates, and often defends, sexual harassment, retaliation and a hostile work environment: ‘zero tolerance’ is a hollow term thrown about with false commitment.”
Steve Mittendorff’s call for a change at the top is further proof that the man who knew Nicole best saw a connection and understood the implications of a culture which degrades women.
Fairfax County is currently embroiled in a number of lawsuits brought by women members of the FRD; the ACLU and the U.S. Department of Justice are involved in these various cases.
One such case, filed by a former woman firefighter named Magaly Hernandez, worked it’s way up to the U.S Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals where her winning decision included a telling comment about how she was treated by the FRD and Fairfax County.
The Court found, “that based on the relative severity of the reprimand, its timing, and the other evidence in the record leading up to Hernandez’s protected activity, a reasonable jury could determine that the County retaliated against Hernandez.”
Fire department leadership effectively retaliated against a woman firefighter seeking justice in the workplace; that’s called harassment, and a special kind of bullying, too.
Indeed, the Washington Post has reported that, “Bullying, harassment and discrimination are perceived to be problems in parts of the Fairfax County Fire Department, and nearly 40 percent of firefighters responding to a survey had experienced or witnessed it.”
The sheer weight of available evidence points to a culture rife with bullying and harassment and there is a strong correlation between this activity and suicidal ideation.
An online resource, Workplace Bullying reports,
“Bullying causes severe health harm, much more acute than is experienced by those sexually harassed. Anxiety (80%), panic attacks (52%); depression (49%); PTSD diagnosis (30%); suffering intrusive thoughts/flashbacks (50%); sleep disorders (77%); hypertension (59%) to name some of the negative health consequences.”