Va. county firefighters, recruits allege extreme hazing at academy

Arlington County firefighters said they feared one recruit would be driven to self-harm by the degrading treatment

By Laura French

ARLINGTON COUNTY, Va. — Firefighters and recruits in a Virginia county have made allegations of extreme hazing at the county fire academy. 

Former Firefighter-EMT Recruit Brett Ahern told WDVM that he experienced demeaning and humiliating treatment from an instructor at the Arlington County Fire Department Training Academy, including harsh punishments and degrading "alternative learning opportunities" (ALOs), about a year ago. WDVM also interviewed other firefighters and recruits who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation. 

Ahern said the harassment started when his instructor made derogatory comments about his religious background, after which he was allegedly singled out and subjected to degrading ALOs and severe punishments.

Ahern said in one instance, he was given an ALO that involved having to wear a broken wall clock tied to his neck by a piece of rope while carrying an eight-foot section of hose filled with rocks and sand. Because the clock was broken, it had to be constantly reset, and if the clock was wrong when someone asked for the time he had to do 10 "prison pushups," Ahern said.  

Another firefighter said they witnessed the clock incident and that Ahern was also issued harsh punishments if the piece of hose he was carrying touched the ground. Ahern said the degrading treatment took a significant toll on his mental health. One firefighter said they feared that Ahern would be driven to self-harm and that other recruits would check on him every night to make sure he was OK. 

Other firefighters and recruits alleged they were also subjected to hazing and bullying. One recruit said his instructor strung a pair of pants he left in the locker room up on the flag pole and forced all the recruits to perform walking lunges around the academy until they located the pants. A former recruit said she heard an instructor call another rookie "autistic" and make statements about certain people only getting promotions because they were female or of a certain race. 

One firefighter also said a recruit's locker was broken and because he couldn't lock it, he was forced to carry all of his locker contents in a trash bag while he and other recruits were training in the field and interacting with the public. 

Arlington County Fire Chief David Povlitz told WDVM that the county and department have "well-established investigation systems" and that the department would "immediately cease and desist" any violation of policy. Povlitz also explained that ALOs are meant to reinforce learning when a recruit makes a mistake and that they shouldn't be demeaning or shameful. He said employees have access to mental health resources, including a peer support team. He did not comment on any specific allegation. 

Ahern said he went through the internal investigation process, which led to the instructor being removed from the academy and reassigned to the field. Ahern was later dismissed by the department after receiving below a 60% on two tests. He says he believes he was force-failed and that the instructor's friends at the academy continued to harass him for the remainder of his time there. 

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