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Fire chief’s reaction: Bullying, culture and prevention

Whether she was bullied or not, Nicole Mittendorff’s suicide should make chiefs and officers take a hard look at their department’s culture


The loss of Firefighter Nicole Mittendorff has had a profound impact on me, both as a fire chief and as a woman serving in emergency service.

It is disturbing to realize the depth of her pain may have been experienced as a result of bullying in what is supposed to be today’s modern fire service. When I relayed the story to my teenage daughter she looked at me in disbelief, saying only that “adults should know better.”

I wish it were that simple.

As a fire chief, I am on my heels looking within my own organization and wondering when — not if — it will happen to us. Is this type of behavior happening at my department?

“Of course not!” is my immediate answer. But is that really true? How do I know for sure?

I’m sure Chief Richard Bowers at Fairfax County (Va.) Fire and Rescue Department is neck-deep in finding the answers to these questions himself. No one should die on our watch.

A systems approach
As I try to address the issue of bullying within my own department, I immediately turn to systems-type thinking. What are the elements of the problem and how do we address those elements?

In other words, regardless if it is true or not today, how do I ensure that bullying is not part of our culture in the future? What are the controls and information pipelines that need to be in place to minimize a culture of bullying?

The next area I want to look at is the leadership piece. Is there something within my own organization or my leadership style that is communicating that it is OK to be disrespectful to each other?

Do our officers understand their role and commitment to accountability to ensure that we do not allow bad behavior to occur and that we owe it to our members to provide them the best work environment possible?

My emotional reaction to the loss of Nicole is that if her death is at all related to what she experienced at work, then she should be classified as a line-of-duty death.

How is her situation different from an unsafe work condition that contributed to the death of a firefighter? No one should die on our watch.

Know the enemy
I need to know more about bullying; education would be a great place to start for myself and our entire department. What are the characteristics of bullies and victims, and what are the stages or phases of bullying and victim behavior?

There are many questions that require more in-depth study and professional development. This is not about making sure that workplace violence and harassment training is completed annually with a “check the box” mentality.

We have been doing that in the fire service for 30 years and still see problems with bad behavior, particularly towards women and minorities. This problem goes beyond annual training, to real substantive training programs that challenge us to learn more about how people behave, and more importantly, how people react to that behavior.

In middle school and high school programs designed to reduce bullying, the focus is on healthy relationships — to be a friend first. There needs to be much discussion among the fire officer core related to this topic and how to identify when bullying behaviors are occurring, mitigation strategies and what a healthy professional relationship should consist of.

And all of this needs to be accomplished with our labor partners and with an attitude of leader’s intent from both management and labor. No one should die on our watch.

Better skill sets
As the fire chief, I need to ensure we have policies that address bullying and bad behavior. Social media policies must be linked with standards of conduct.

Personnel evaluations must address how we treat our co-workers as well as how we deploy ladders. Soft skills need to be evaluated at the same level of scrutiny as the hard skills.

Taking these engineering controls one step further, labor and management need to create opportunities for personnel to communicate the issues they are experiencing or seeing, whether it is with a counselor or an open-door policy in a way that allows individuals to speak truth to power without compromising their position on the team.

We have to find a way for people to be able to talk about their issues at work in a safe environment. No one should die on our watch.

Here is where the real issues lie: enforcement. Too often officers do not want to take the necessary steps for discipline because writing a behavior into a disciplinary action is the equivalent of selling your soul to the devil.

A vow for Nicole
Yet we will minimize the victims’ rights for the sake of maximizing our personal relationships with our buddies at work; we don’t want to rock the boat.

Instead of “see something, say something,” we operate under the mentality of “see something, say nothing.” We further isolate the victims even more by drawing away from them instead of towards them.

A good officer understands that knowing the members of their crew individually and maximizing their strengths produces the best team effort. This is another area where we separate the soft skills from the hard skills.

Unfortunately we have created a culture where officers are admired for their performance on emergency scenes but criticized for using discipline appropriately to curb bad behavior.

When is the last time an officer received an award of merit for taking care of the behavior problems in the station? Oh wait, we don’t talk about those problems.

I feel great pain and sorrow for everyone in Nicole’s life. I vow to use Nicole’s story as another learning opportunity to improve our efforts within our department.

We will pay attention to how we treat others. We will monitor our personnel both physically and mentally. We will do what it takes to eradicate bad behavior. No one will die on our watch.

Cheryl Horvath is fire chief of the Tubac Fire District in Arizona. She previously served as executive assistant fire chief with the Golder Ranch Fire District and as fire chief with the Mountain Vista Fire Department, both in Arizona. She is a past president of the International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services, and served on the International Association of Fire Chiefs’ FRI program planning committee. She served as an instructor with the Illinois Fire Service Institute for 15 years. Horvath has a master’s degree in public administration from Anna Maria College and a bachelor’s of science degree in program management from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Connect with Horvath on LinkedIn.

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