Fairfax County’s fire chief announced his retirement Friday, a little over a week after county officials said they would investigate allegations that the Northern Virginia department failed to curb sexual harassment.
Richard Bowers has received high marks during his five-year tenure for the department’s firefighting work, but was dogged by complaints and a handful of lawsuits claiming women were mistreated in the ranks. Bowers’ last day will be April 30.
The chief declined to comment, but county officials said Bowers offered to retire after a meeting this week with the county executive, who expressed frustration by the Board of Supervisors with the pace of progress in changing the culture of the department.
Still, Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova praised Bowers’ work.
“Chief Bowers has been an outstanding chief in that he has been over the top with community outreach and engagement, and making improvements to some of the response issues the department has had,” Bulova said. “As we are looking for a new fire chief, we will be looking for someone who has those skills and can deal with behavioral issues.”
Bowers was appointed chief in February 2013, following a 35-year career with the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service in Maryland. The department achieved a top-tier ranking for fire protection under his watch, created its first strategic plan and built and renovated stations.
But the department was plunged into controversy in 2016, after firefighter Nicole Mittendorff committed suicide. Her family has not given a reason for her suicide, but sexist and sexually suggestive comments were made about her on a local internet forum that appeared to come from people with knowledge of the department.
In the wake of Mittendorff’s death, other female firefighters came forward and some sued, alleging problems with sexual harassment in the department, a lack of leadership on the issue, and problems with women advancing to higher ranks.
Bowers promised to change the culture of the department and instituted a number of fixes, including revising policies for investigating sexual harassment claims and providing retraining on the issue.
County officials also commissioned a report analyzing the department’s culture that was released last year. A survey accompanying it found nearly 40 percent of firefighters reported experiencing or witnessing harassment, bullying and discrimination. It also showed some were dissatisfied with the department’s leadership.
Then last month, Battalion Chief Kathleen Stanley outlined fresh allegations in a scathing letter, submitting her resignation as interim director of the fire department’s women’s program. Department leaders disputed the claims.
“This position is for show with no legitimate authority, respect or value,” Stanley wrote in the letter. “Advice, advocacy and suggestions are humored, at best, and routinely dismissed.”
Stanley detailed a long list of complaints, including saying a group of men received privileges that women did not, a female firefighter was retaliated against after seeking an apology for sexual harassment, and the department’s “zero tolerance” policy for sexual harassment was not acted upon.
“I hope with the new administration we will get through all these problems,” Stanley said Friday. “We are a great department. We deserve a great leader.”
Bulova said the county will begin a wide-ranging search for Bowers’ replacement. County officials hope to have a new chief in place by the time he retires at the end of April.