Suicide Watch: Fairfax & Nicole Mittendorff, Three Years On

Nicole Mittendorff

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.”

Why?

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.

Steve Mittendorff

Steve Mittendorff
(Twitter)

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.”

Kathleen Stanley
(ACLU)

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.

Fighting Back

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.

Workplace Bullying

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.”

Bully victims are between 2 to 9 times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims, according to studies by Yale University
 
One study found that of those bullied in the workplace 29% contemplated suicide; 16% developed a plan to take their life.
 
Just imagine if the bullying is based in severe sexual harassment.

Real Justice?

As far as the “false narrative” goes, those who ruthlessly bullied Nicole are still at large, lurking in the shadows, cowards that they are. 
 
And with those who blithely engage in outrageous sexual harassment, among them senior officers, some go preening about their business.
 
Fairfax County has a moral duty to unmask them but refuses to do so as it simply proves the culture of sexual harassment and bullying; for County lawyers it would be like handing the evidence to plaintiff’s counsel.
 
 
That lack of justice is allowing a culture of denial to flourish and the “false narrative” is the fruit of that denial.
 
Only if those responsible for the bullying were to be identified would a true investigation begin.
 
The venue would be a civil court where a charge of wrongful death would be levied against those who bullied Nicole.
 
An impartial jury would hear from trained and experienced mental health clinicians. 
 
Sworn testimony would impose the sanctions of perjury on those tempted to lie under oath. 
 
For the very first time, all of the circumstances and factors surrounding Nicole’s final months and days would be impartially reviewed.
 
The likely conclusion is also the rational one: many factors played a role including the horrendous bullying and sexual harassment connected with her place of employment.
 
The police “investigation” would be placed in context, obviating its use as a crutch for those who cannot bear to think that they were complicit in a suicide.
 
Indeed, the end result would be the conclusion that the false narrative is instead the one cherished by department members who claim innocence, the exact opposite is the case.
 
The larger lesson for those who profess to be sincerely interested in preventing suicide in the workplace is that only a searing self assessment, rather than denial, will cause change.
 
And that has yet to occur.
 
The frosting on an especially bitter cake is the news that a senior union official was apparently demoted from his FRD officer position over a sustained charge of sexual harassment yet remains to guide the Local.
 
That’s a grave insult to justice, equality and fairness.
 
 
Eric Lamar served as a Fairfax firefighter for 22 years before retiring in 1998; he has been a member of IAFF Local 2068 for 43 years.
 
 

4 Comments

  • Peggy Fox says:

    Excellent blog

  • Stephanie White says:

    Serious question Eric, what year did you retire? I’m asking because I think that the men and women have done an amazing- truly amazing job of protecting the memory and reputation of Miss Mittendorf. If my memory serves me correctly you retired before this occurred. Had you been on the job, or spent time around certain individuals, or had more of an understanding of how social media trolls work- I think you would have a more well rounded view.
    But you don’t. Plain and simple. I’m honestly sick and tired of reading over regurgitated and tired opinions about my department and what men or females not in this department think. Sure their are a couple of disgruntled dinosaurs who have a poor opinion of this department. I think had women raised their voices against some of their nasty behaviors years ago- they’d find themselves on the different end of a law suit.
    In short, chill. Quit it. Find a new subject. The more this subject is brought up, the harder it is for the men and women of Fairfax to bite their tongues and protect the memory of the deceased. We’ve frankly been shit on, but we’ve done the right thing and kept our mouth shut. So kindly sir take your retired sales on to the next subject and let the folks still on the job continue to build the department we serve. Not tear it down.

  • Timothy melton says:

    Stephanie, those that defend injustice are part of the injustice. Eric had a long history of service with the department and can speak from experience. Fairfax had a long history of harassing and bullying. The number of law suits speak to this. Be part of the clean up, not part of the problem. It may be better now that the older generation is gone, but still it did exist! Own up to it!

  • William Todd says:

    Stephanie White your comments are a further embarrassment to your organization and by your choice of words and rhetoric, you bring shame to the word professional firefighter.

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