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What the Fairfax Co. Fire Dept. report missed

The 53-page assessment of the fire department following Nicole Mittendorff’s suicide didn’t address the core issues or their solutions


Nicole Mittendorff.

Courtesy photo

Following the suicide of Firefighter Nicole Mittendorff last year, the Fairfax County (Va.) Fire and Rescue Department contracted to have an assessment done of organizational culture and attitudes within the department. The resulting report includes many valuable insights and recommendations, but also falls short when it comes to really dealing with the issue of accountability.

The report is clear that the effort was not an investigation of specific events, but rather a more general description of current climate within the department. Indeed, Nicole Mittendorff’s name is never mentioned, nor are the defamatory comments, which were posted online about her and other women on the department.

Instead, the report talks about general attitudes among department members related to five key topics: dedication; leadership; bullying, harassment and discrimination; conflict management; and hiring and promotions.

The report comes to several unsurprising conclusions that could apply to many fire departments across the country.

  • Leaders need to be more transparent and “walk the talk.”
  • More training and enforcement needs to occur related to bullying and harassment.
  • Senior officers should be more consistent in how they handle conflict.
  • Department policies and outcomes for violating those policies need to be more clear.

These are good recommendations, to be sure. But while there is certainly a need for increased accountability from the top down, the report does little to emphasize the importance of accountability at all levels.

Real accountability

Nicole Mittendorff was targeted through an online chat room where people could make anonymous postings. Many did, about her and other women on the department.

The casual exchanges included comments that went beyond just rude and crude, comments that were not only hurtful, but could be truly damaging to an individual.

This report was not an investigation of Nicole Mittendorff’s suicide, and it is unclear whether such an investigation did occur. But what is clear is that there is plenty of accountability to go around regarding the circumstances prior to her death.

The online chat room was a public forum. The postings went on for well over a month. Many people saw them. Many more undoubtedly heard about them.

Yet did one person notify senior staff about the activity? Did officers and chiefs know and just look the other way? Did anyone report the activity to the website host?

Did anyone do anything at all to try to stop the toxic momentum of the online exchanges? And if not, why not?

Skills development

The Fairfax County report makes detailed recommendations about how policies should be updated and disseminated, how discipline should be handled, how the grievance process should be revised.

But it says virtually nothing about empowering people at every level of the organization to make decisions, to stand up to bad behavior, to be an ally to someone who is targeted. A formal policy and an online class on bullying are not likely to change much of anything when practices are deeply embedded in organizational culture and expectations.

And even if people want to stand up and make a change, they need real skills to do so. Managing conflict, confronting bullies — these are not skills that we naturally have. They must be learned, reinforced, supported not only from the top down, but also laterally, among peers.

Members need to know not only what to do, but how to do it. And they need to feel safe and supported in making those choices.

This is especially true for officers. Many company officers are promoted based on technical knowledge and are largely unprepared for their role in defusing conflict and setting the tone within a team.

They may have good intentions, but poor skills can sink their best efforts. Even if they want to do the right thing, they may feel they won’t be supported by their crews, their peers or their supervisors if they make hard choices.

Modeling behavior

Accountability certainly starts at the top, but not just so that those with higher rank may develop policies to manage the people they supervise. Those at the highest level of any organization must hold one another accountable as well.

If chiefs make inappropriate comments at staff meetings, there must be a way for others present to call them out. If chiefs are either abusing or abdicating power, others close to them must speak to that in a constructive way.

This all sounds good in theory, but how practical is it in reality? Will firefighters really stand up to their peers when hazing or harassment is taking place in a group? Will a mid-level chief really contradict the chief of the department?

They will if they know they are expected to do so. They will if they have the skills.

They will if they see leaders in their departments modeling and rewarding that behavior. They will if they believe they will be safe in standing up and doing the right thing.

I subscribe to a number of fire service news feeds, and every week there is at least one story about fire department members behaving inappropriately, not just randomly, but in a way that indicates a pattern and leads to acceptance of that behavior as a cultural norm.

These stories always end badly — a department is sued, a firefighter is hurt, firefighters lose their jobs. And sometimes, people even die.

But it is all avoidable. All it takes is the will to invest resources — time, money, attention — to foster skills and abilities for people to do better. And then the organization must create a climate and expectation of accountability in doing so, from which no one is exempt.

Take your department in the direction you want. Get expert advice on how to effectively lead your fire department. 20-year veteran Linda Willing writes “Leading the Team,” a FireRescue1 column about fire department leadership.