Tragedy has a strange way of clarifying a tough issue especially with the tragic death of Nicole Mittendorff, paramedic/firefighter from Fairfax County Virginia. We will never know the true reason she took her life, but the pressures must have been unimaginable for her to take this action.
The tabloids and media are speculating that her suicide is linked to cyberbullying, bullying and harassment by members of her department and the community. Multiple media outlets have stated that Ms. Mittendorff was a target of lewd and derogatory comments on Fairfax Underground, a public forum. Early reports speculated that some of the comments must have been made by members of her department because of the detail is information that only a firefighter would have. However, the forum is public and anyone can comment. The posts in question have been removed, but a recent perusal of the site revealed ongoing attack commentary about Ms. Mittendorff and attacking other writers rising to her defense and others speaking out on this issue related to her suicide and the cyberbullying. Behavior she and other female firefighters endured for a long period of time. Fire Chief Richard Brower, in the press has asserted that his department cannot and will not tolerate bullying of any kind, and the matter will be thoroughly investigated and appropriate action taken.
Two valuable lessons come from this tragic death; first, suicide prevention and intervention needs to be addressed and bullying exists even in the honorable profession of firefighting. Do not let the valuable lesson from this firefighter’s death – a humanitarian, wife and daughter of a grieving family fade away into obscurity.
It is outrageous that this forum has been around for two years and Ms. Mintendorff had been targeted for months before her death, appeared to be known by other individuals both in and out of the department. What has not been stated is that it is likely that the bullying was not just online. The illusion of anonymity allowed for the forum posts to be particularly lewd and derogatory, while person to person harassment may have been subtler.
It is often the case that the harasser and bully is known, but no one speaks up. There are several reasons no one steps up. First, bystanders may not stop it because they fear being targeted themselves; second, bystanders may actually join in to fit in; third, the behavior may have been reported, but nothing was done, and fourth, bystanders may minimize it out of disbelief that someone they know and maybe respect could be capable of such action; as well as other reasons. No matter what the reasons are that allow the behavior to continue it leads to the target, as well as those witnessing it to feel powerless to stop it.
The lesson learned from this tragedy: it is imperative that members of the department, especially the leadership take steps to ensure that individual differences are respected. Also, do not allow bullies to hide behind the jokes, pranks and put downs that often is accepted as part of the fire department culture. There are degrees of harassment and if ignored at one level, it opens the door for more egregious and insidious behaviors that contribute to good people leaving the fire service or worse dying by suicide. Leaders need to know that bullying behaviors especially affect women and minorities.
What is bullying and cyber bullying? Bullying is the use of physical or verbal force, threat, abuse or coercion, intimidation or to aggressively dominate others. The behavior is often repeated and habitual and there is usually an individual target. Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, excluding someone from a group on purpose and suggesting someone quit his or her job. Bullying can occur in-person or through technology. Cyberbullying is a specific type of bullying that occurs through the use of technology and it offers no escape as it is ongoing 24/7, potentially around the world. One essential prerequisite is the perception, by the bully or by others, of an imbalance of social or physical power, which distinguishes bullying from conflict.
Bullying has long lasting psychological, cognitive and physical consequences. Bullying is an interpersonal attack and falls on the trauma continuum. While it does not meet the trauma criterion for diagnosis of PTSD, the effects may contribute to PTSD-like symptoms, depression, anxiety, paranoia, poor self-esteem, poor performance, absenteeism, social isolation, insomnia, ruminations, flashbacks, memory issues, cognitive processing issues, headaches, body aches, GI issues, and alcohol and drug use. The effects of bullying are not reserved for the target of such behavior, individuals who witness the bullying may also struggle with similar symptoms. It is no different than the traumatic experience associated with secondary traumatic stress.
Often times the person doing the bullying was once bullied themselves. They struggle with self-esteem issues and need to assert their dominance over someone else. They may be narcissistic, feeling like they are above everyone else. Also previous targets of bullying who go on to bully may participate in other forms of interpersonal or sexual assaults. Bullying, regardless of being the target or perpetrator, both are at higher risk for suicide.
Workplace factors also contribute to the presence of bullying. In fact several factors innate in the fire service environment contribute to bullying, such as work stress, high workload, boredom, low autonomy, job insecurity, and role conflict. In general, the job is stressful, and the workload can go from high to low, which contributes to being over worked followed by boredom. For women and minorities, the low autonomy can stem from the sense of working “under a microscope”. Job security and role conflict is also a problem because women and minorities are more often to be questioned about their place in the fire service.
An important point to understand is that cyber bullying, bullying and harassment do not cause a person to choose to die by suicide. The powerful nature of the 24/7 interpersonal attacks contributes to the associated risks of suicide. Not all people who die by suicide are bullied and not all people who are bullied die by suicide. Do not mistake this statement as a reason to not address bullying. Bullying carries an enormous cost for the target of the bullying as well as the bystanders and for this reason it must not be allowed in any organization.
Legally states have enacted laws to protect individuals from bullying and harassment, especially cyberbullying. In Virginia, bullying itself is not the name of a crime, but rather described behavior that may lead to criminal charges. Bullies will face criminal charges based on their specific behavior. As an example, cyberbullying may be charged under Virginia’s "harassment by computer" law when the bully used a computer to send obscene communications, suggestions, or threats of any illegal act with the intent to harass, coerce, or intimidate a victim. (Va. Ann. Code § 18.2-152..7:1.). Many other states have similar laws protecting individuals from cyberbullying.
There are any number of laws protecting firefighters from Harassment and Discrimination in all states and departments must create enforceable policies to prevent this behavior and the department leadership needs to take a ZERO TOLERANCE policy related to these behaviors affecting their employees from within and outside the organization.
Leadership responsibilities. If only fire service leaders were cut from the mold of admired movie and other fictional characters: the superhero or incredibly powerful leader we wish to emulate. Yes, we have many of those types in our service but they are not in the right department at the right time. There are many examples of leadership that take an adaptive leadership role and not technical leadership actions to address this problem. Adaptive leadership looks to see if the problems that require change at the core of what people are doing, feeling, and thinking require a tailored approach, requiring adaptive leadership.
Let’s ensure that the adaptive leader change the core of the departments culture and traditions to be more accepting of the diversity that has become our fire service. Adaptive leadership will add the message that women are an important component of our fire service and who place their lives on the line every shift and are subject to continuous overt and covert bullying, harassment, sexual harassment and at times sexual assault. Do we have their back? Will we leave them behind? It is imperative that strong leadership lead the way and prevent this war on women firefighters and other minorities in our fire service.
Unfortunately, this is a tragedy that should not have happened but it will occur again and again. We will stand around and wring our hands and lament of a lost opportunity that “we should have done something” to prevent these tragedies. We can and must prevent these suicides and it starts with YOU taking a strong position that you will not tolerate any harassment of anyone in your department or in your community. We must provide a safe place for our firefighters and it is important that we have the backs of our firefighters regardless of gender, ethnicity or color and for those of you affected by harassment, bullying, discrimination or cyberbullying, reach out to the organizations listed below, or call a friend for assistance. Your life depends on it.
Borrowing important information from BillyG and Firefighter Close Calls, here are some important links for your use in addressing this issue. Please take the time to look at the sites and find out what you can do to prevent this horrible tragedy from repeating itself.
The following are resources available to firefighters and departments related to behavioral health:
IAFF/IAFC SLIDE PROGRAM:
NVFC: Share The Load program:
NFFF SUICIDE PREVENTION -THE FIRE CHIEFS GUIDE:
SAFE CALL NOW:
FF BEHAVIORAL HEALTH ALLIANCE:
Workplace Bullying Information
John K. Murphy, JD, MS. PA-C, EFO, Deputy Fire Chief (Ret), has been a member of the career fire service since 1974, beginning his career as a firefighter & paramedic and retiring in 2007 as a deputy fire chief and chief training officer. He is a licensed attorney in Washington State since 2002 and in New York since 2011. He serves as an expert witness involving fire department litigation and has been involved in numerous cases across the country. He is a frequent Legal contributor to Fire Engineering Magazine, participant in Fire Service Court Blog Radio and a national speaker on fire service legal issues. He is a contributing author to Fire Engineering and serves as legal counsel for ISFSI.
Dr. Beth L. Murphy, Psy.D., retired as a firefighter and is a Doctor of Clinical Psychology. She is a practicing clinician with a focus on trauma workplace stress, PTSD, cancer survivors with a focus on police and fire agencies and returning military personnel. She retired as firefighter/EMT and member of the department’s hazardous materials response unit and Peer Support Team. She is a contributing author to Fire Engineering, host of Firefighter Behavioral Health on FE Blog Talk Radio and national speaker of Firefighter Behavioral Health.