Bullying: Fire and EMS's tragedy and disgrace

The suicide of Nicole Mittendorff causes us to ask the question: What is the impact of bullying on emergency responder mental health and suicide?


The public safety sector – including fire service, law enforcement, EMS and corrections – has made significant gains in raising awareness around suicide among first responders. But did you know that sometimes the very messages used to promote awareness can cause harm and undermine suicide prevention efforts?

However, public safety professionals of all ranks and positions can learn to convey messages of hope and resiliency and promote positive, help-seeking behaviors in an on-demand webinar, availabe here.

By Ann Maria Farina

Since the body of Nicole Mittendorff was found in the Shenandoah National Park on April 21, allegations of bullying and harassment by her co-workers have surfaced on social media, in the news and in private messages to FireRescue1's sister publication EMS1.

It's a profound tragedy, and the bullying angle in particular has struck a nerve among many in fire and EMS after it was confirmed that Mittendorff had taken her own life.

We don't know whether bullying was a primary factor in her suicide, but we do know that starting in December 2015 lewd comments and rumors about Mittendorff’s personal life were posted online by people claiming to be Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department firefighters, the department where she worked as a firefighter-paramedic.

The despicable nature of the language in the online posts certainly points to the strong possibility that the bullying had an impact on Mittendorff’s mental health.

No excuse for bullying

This is not the first time bullying and harassment has potentially been a contributing factor to a first responder suicide. The availability of seemingly anonymous message boards and other social media channels have made it easy for lewd comments and rumors to spread rapidly.

Since the comments and postings about Mittendorff have been reported, the common phenomenon that is "victim blaming" has surfaced on social media and even in messages to the EMS1 editor-in-chief. People are quick to try to justify the online harassment by claiming there is more to the story or that the victim somehow brought it on themselves.

Whether or not bullying was a direct cause in her suicide, it forces us to engage in discussion about one unequivocal truth: There is no excuse for bullying in the workplace.

Repeat after me.

There. Is. No. Excuse. For. Bullying.

The truth or falsity of rumors is completely irrelevant; nothing excuses bullying and harassment. It is not your place to publicly humiliate and shame a co-worker.

As any kid who wears glasses can tell you, true statements can still be used in a tortuous manner. Being a first responder can be traumatic enough without one’s peers adding to the stress and trauma.

Women are disproportionately impacted

Bullying in the workplace is not a new or uncommon issue. In the 2013 WBI Industry report, the two fields with the most bullying reported were hospital-based health care and public services, which included fire and EMS [1].

The 2014 Workplace Bullying Survey showed that 27 percent of workers have experienced bullying at work [2]. In that survey, 69 percent of bullies were male, while 60 percent of the targets of bullying were female.

In the fire service, bullying and harassment have been identified as ongoing problems, especially among female firefighters. According to the NPFA in 2012, the most recent year available, only 3.4 percent of career firefighters in the United States were female [3].

Female firefighters have expressed that they do not feel like they are treated as equals with their male peers and report significantly higher rates of workplace bullying and harassment than their male co-workers [4]. In a study of 339 firefighters, 54 percent of female firefighters indicated they were not treated as equals, however 84 percent of female firefighters said they would still enter the fire service [5, 6].

The 2008 National Report Card on Women in Firefighting interviewed 675 firefighters in 48 states, 175 of which were female firefighters. Eighty-five percent of the females surveyed reported that they had been treated differently due to their gender versus 12.4 percent of the males surveyed.

Fifty-one percent of females reported being shunned versus two percent of males. Forty-three percent of females reported experiencing verbal harassment versus three percent of males. Females also reported experiencing exposure to pornography, unwanted sexual advances, and hostile notes at rates at least 15 times greater than the male respondents reported [4].

A study in Norway found that adult victims of workplace bullying were twice as likely to have suicidal ideations than those who were not bullied [7].

What is being done to stop it

There do not appear to be any studies directly looking at what affects workplace bullying and harassment of first responders may have on their mental health. However, I feel safe saying that adding an additional stressor to someone who is already a member of a high-risk profession is not likely to have a positive effect on their mental health.

In an effort to curb bullying and particularly cyberbullying, laws have been passed making it easier to find the identities of online attackers and to prosecute them. As of 2014, 48 states had anti-bullying or anti-harassment legislation that mentions the use of electronic communication methods.

Virginia law calls a time out on the statute of limitations on defamation cases if the investigators have something like a username or IP address of a harasser, but don’t have the bully's real identity yet. Virginia also has a law clearly outlining what is considered online harassment, and people found to be in violation may be guilty of a class 1 misdemeanor.  

The 2014 Workplace Bullying Survey showed that 72 percent of people were aware workplace bullying happens [2]. This means there are a significant percentage of employees who are witnessing bullying. If you are a witness to bullying behavior, here are some things you can do to help:

  • Let the victim of the bullying know that you’re aware of what is going on and are willing to make a report.
  • Encourage the victim of the bullying to stand up for themselves.
  • Talk to the person doing the bullying. Explain why their behavior is not OK.
  • Discourage people from spreading rumors.
  • If the bullying is on social media, use the website’s report function to notify administrators about it so it can be removed.
  • Report it to a supervisor, human resources or via another appropriate avenue. 

What chiefs must do

Chiefs, owners, managers and supervisors of fire departments and EMS agencies need to foster an environment where mistreatment will not be tolerated and where complaints are evaluated in a fair manner. The fire service, and to a lesser extent EMS, have a reputation as a ‘good ol’ boys club’, and where that culture dictates mistreatment of those not fitting the standard mold, it must be aggressively addressed and corrected.

Here are nine things we should expect from every public safety workplace.

  • Make it clear during the initial hiring process that bullying and harassment of any kind is not permitted.
  • Have comprehensive policies outlining how bullying and harassment should be reported and investigated.
  • Educate employees annually on bullying and harassment policies.
  • Make sure bullying and harassment are specifically covered in workplace violence.
  • Look to national professional associations and training vendors for bullying prevention training programs.
  • Do not dismiss complaints of bullying without investigating. The behavior you see from the accused employee may not be the behavior everyone else sees.
  • Calls to toughen up, that is how things have always been, it’s just men being men and other similar excuses should never be used to dismiss a complaint or justify behavior.
  • Even if a rumor is deemed truthful that does not mean it is appropriate for workplace discussion. 
  • If permitted, consider bringing in a neutral third party to conduct investigations of workplace bullying and harassment.

As mental health becomes a more common topic of discussion among first responders, it stands to reason that discussions of bullying and harassment are going to follow since we know there is a link.

As part of changing first responder culture to destigmatize mental health, we also need to work on eliminating bullying and harassment. Having a mentally healthy workplace cannot happen if we only focus on the traumatic calls and not the trauma we inflict on each other.

References
1. Namie, Gary, PhD, Daniel Christensen, and David Phillips. 2013 WBI Bullying By Industry Survey. Rep. Workplace Bullying Institute, 2013. Web. 24 Apr. 2016.

2. Namie, Gary, PhD, Daniel Christensen, and David Phillips. 2014 WBI US Workplace Bullying Survey. Rep. Workplace Bullying Institute, 2014. Web. 24 Apr. 2016.

3. Firefighting occupations by women and race. http://www.nfpa.org/research/reports-and-statistics/the-fire-service/administration/firefighting-occupations-by-women-and-race

4. Hulett, Denise M., Marc Bendick, Jr., Sheila Y. Thomas, and Francine Moccio. A National Report Card on Women in Firefighting. Rep. International Association of Women in Fire & Emergency Services, Apr. 2008. Web. 24 Apr. 2016.

5. Does the Fire Station Have a Glass Ceiling (Griffith, Schultz, M. C., Schultz, J. T., & Wakeham, 2015)

6. Bullying on the job: A new threat to the fire service http://www.fireengineering.com/articles/2012/10/bullying-on-the-job-a-new-threat-to-the-fire-service.html

7. Morten Birkeland Nielsen, Geir Høstmark Nielsen, Guy Notelaers, and Ståle Einarsen. Workplace Bullying and Suicidal Ideation: A 3-Wave Longitudinal Norwegian Study. American Journal of Public Health: November 2015, Vol. 105, No. 11, pp. E23-e28.

About the author
Ann Marie Farina is a NR-P in Washington state. She has been in EMS since 2003 and has worked in a variety of positions in Alaska and Washington since then. Over the years her jobs have included working as a wildland fire medic, a dual-role firefighter/paramedic, a 911 transport medic, and as an educator. In March of 2014 Ann founded The Code Green Campaign, a mental health awareness campaign that raises awareness about mental health conditions and suicide in first responders. Through Code Green, Ann has worked as an educator, researcher and consultant in order to assist agencies in improving their mental health programs.

This article, originally published April 25, 2016, has been updated

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