“Fairfax Leaders Need to Stand Against Sexual Harassment.” That was the headline in an op-ed piece last week in this newspaper. Take a stand? Yes, it’s easy to take a stand, just as it is easy to scatter charges and misinformation (the Board of Supervisors has no role in appointments or promotions made by the Fire Chief; likewise, filings with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission [EEOC] puts the EEOC in control of the process, not the Board) without acknowledging the extraordinary efforts taken by the county’s Fire and Rescue Department (FRD) since the sad news of a female firefighter’s suicide in 2016. No one really knows what leads someone to take their own life but, regardless of the reasons, it’s always tragic – for family, for friends, and for co-workers. Out of such a tragedy, however, can come compassion, understanding, and change.
It is important to move Fairfax County forward in a positive trajectory, and that’s what has been happening in the Fairfax FRD, and all of county government, since 2016. The county’s Employee Handbook sets forth the usual information about pay and benefits, workplace safety, retirement, and prohibitions in the use of technology, but it also highlights employee conduct and harassment policies. Additionally, all county staff, including FRD members, take mandatory sexual harassment and EEO training. Those trainings apply to members of the Board of Supervisors and staff, as well. I’ve recently completed most of the training modules, and am required to complete two more by the middle of August. I wonder if the Virginia General Assembly has the same requirements for its elected members.
There is no question that the reputation of the Fire and Rescue Department, and its members, has been bruised, and more work to correct the identified problems needs to be completed. All members of the department take pride in their service to the community, despite ongoing media attacks, which make their already difficult jobs even more challenging. At no time has there been a question about their ability to fight fires, perform incredible rescues that save lives (including swift water rescues during recent storms), and provide a uniformed presence at local community events. Internally, the department has conducted more than 50 meetings with employees, established a data analytics section within its Information Technology section, established a formal mentoring program for women in the department, and is working on mental health initiatives. Seventeen percent of female FRD employees are officers, and the department ranks in the top five percent nationally for minority staffing. All of this is being accomplished under the direction of the Board of Supervisors, County Executive Bryan Hill, and acting Fire Chief John Caussin. New Fire Chief John Butler will take over the mission when he begins his tenure as fire chief on Sept. 1.
In late May, it was my privilege to address the iWomen Firefighter Conference, held this year at Tysons Corner. The opening statement by the president of iWomen addressed the fact that the group decided to maintain their commitment to holding the conference in Fairfax County, despite the issues swirling about the department. Those issues do not define the group, she said, and it became a teaching moment for the more than 300 firefighters and rescue personnel from all over the world. I told them that “self-doubt can be a mighty barrier to success but, whatever the challenge, you can rise above it. Appreciate and respect those you work for, and with, and the teamwork and cooperation so necessary to their jobs as fire and rescue personnel will follow, almost automatically. Alone, you can be vulnerable; together, you can do almost anything!” I was stunned, and thrilled, to leave the stage to a standing ovation.
Substantive change rarely is easy, but leaders must be allowed to do their jobs and both lead and heal, internally and externally. As the Fairfax FRD moves forward with new resolve, I am confident that young women today can follow their dreams to become Fairfax County firefighters without fear of harassment, and aspire to be Chief someday, as well.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.