FAIRFAX, Va. - Change is being promised in Fairfax County after an investigation into allegations of harassment within the county's fire department.
A new report was issued Tuesday that reviewed allegations of sexual harassment after one of the highest ranking women in the department, Battalion Chief Kathleen Stanley, resigned from her position in January. She wrote a scathing resignation letter in which she detailed at least half a dozen allegations of sexual harassment.
New Fairfax County Executive Bryan Hill declared change is coming to a culture within the county's Fire and Rescue Department that some have claimed tolerates discrimination, bullying, harassment and retaliation against whistleblowers.
"As your communicator, as your leader, I am trying to embrace the fact that we need to communicate and lead better for our Fire and Rescue team,” Hill said. "Going forward, what I am trying to do here in Fairfax County is ensure this is a culture that we change."
The fire department is known for its highly regarded Urban Search and Rescue Team. Some female firefighters said their experience has been nothing but positive.
"This fire department is our family and the guys and girls have been nothing but great with me,” said Fairfax County firefighter May Empie.
But Battalion Chief Cheri Zosh, a 24-year veteran on the job, said she has been the victim of what some call a toxic environment at work – one that discriminates against women and minorities.
"We see that there is a frat house mentality,” Zosh said. “Where telling dirty jokes, sexually harassing the women, demeaning the women by acknowledging them for their body or for their outfits is more important than the job that they bring to the table.”
"We take every allegation seriously,” said Deputy County Executive Dave Rohrer. “If we can prove something, whether it is on-duty or off-duty, we are going to deal with that."
A dark side within the fire department came to light two years ago after the suicide of 31-year-old firefighter Nicole Mittendorff. It is alleged she was bullied online by members of her own department.
"If it's during my time or our time, we can do something about it,” said Hill. “But if they go online outside of their time, there is not much we can do other than tell them not to do it.”
Not long after Mittendorff's widower called for the resignation of Fire Chief Richard Bowers, he announced his retirement last month.
Hill said the search for a new fire chief will focus on somebody who will champion transparency and promote a healthy work environment.