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Nicole Mittendorff, a Fairfax County firefighters and paramedic who took her own life in April (Facebook).

'Attitude of the past'

Woman firefighter’s suicide seen as alarm ‘bell’ that requires urgent action

August 23, 2016

In April, 31-year-old Nicole Mittendorff, a firefighter and paramedic in Fairfax County, Virginia, mysteriously committed suicide. Though no one knows the the precise reason Mittendorff took her own life, it was revealed after death that she had been the subject of intense online bullying. Scores of lewd and harassing comments were posted about her on a popular internet forum by anonymous users — some of them, it seemed, by her own colleagues. Mittendorff’s tragic story has opened the floodgates for other women firefighters to make their similar experiences public. A number of lawsuits have been brought — at least two against the Fairfax fire department, and other women are speaking up about some of the shocking behavior they’ve been subjected to in the profession. One of the lawsuits was filed by a woman firefighter in Fairfax who says she faced retaliation after she reported to officials that her male colleagues were partying on a firetruck with waitresses from Hooters. Another high-ranking woman firefighter sued the department for failing to address sexual harassment.

“The culture that resides around women is that we’re not supposed to actually be on the hose lines or driving the fire apparatus,” said Cheri Zosh, a battalion chief in Fairfax. “That attitude of the past still resides in a large percentage of the nation.”

Mittendorff was reported missing by her husband in April after she’d mysteriously called out sick from work and sent her family members what would be a final text message. After about eight days, Mittendorff’s body was discovered by searchers in a remote area of Shenandoah National Park, about a mile from her car. After the abusive posts were discovered, grief gave way to outrage and an internal investigation was launched to determine whether any of the anonymous postings were indeed made by Mittendorff’s colleagues. The probe is still ongoing. Mittendorff’s tragic fate has been seen as a ‘”fire bell,” blaring that the profession needs to address its biased culture.

Nicole Mittendorf (Facebook).
Nicole Mittendorff (Facebook).

While women accounted for 47 percent of the general workforce in 2015, according to federal statistics, a mere six percent of firefighters in the U.S. were women. And the atmosphere within the firefighting profession reflects that huge disparity, as evidenced by the series of lawsuits the profession has been hit with in recent years. One example: A fire department in Florida was accused of forcing a female firefighter to battle a blaze while pregnant. As a result, she suffered a miscarriage and the U.S. Justice Department weighed in on her case.

William R. Metcalf, the former president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, called firefighting a “white guy’s club” two years ago in open letter to the members of his group. Metcalf’s unvarnished take on the culture of firefighting is jarring — some of what he claims is permissible in firehouses is downright criminal, even worse than the firefighter forced to work while pregnant in some cases — but it’s a difficult truth that those in the profession must face head-on if change is ever going to take hold.

Read the full story at The Washington Post.


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