America is an angry, divided place these days. Lots of people just don’t like each other very much, and they’re not shy about saying so. You can barely scan the news without ugly accounts of their petty nastiness.
Whether that’s a matter of increased frequency or just increased coverage, the emergency services aren’t immune, and that’s troubling. We wonder if the racists, sexists, and other bigots who still plague fire and EMS—and who beclown themselves with online slurs and intemperate social-media venting—always provide the best care, or are the best colleagues, to those they deem lesser.
We wish those people would find other employment.
Raising this issue again is a recent case involving the notorious website Fairfax Underground.
You may have heard of the site, a community page created for discussion among residents of Virginia’s Fairfax County. Fairfax Underground takes a minimalist policy toward altering and deleting posts, thus allowing wide rein to its anonymous commenters. Spirited debate and civic engagement ensue—along with incivility, trollery, and hate.
Two years ago Fairfax Underground was one source of the crude anonymous harassment that preceded the suicide of local firefighter-paramedic Nicole Mittendorff. Though it has no official linkage to Fairfax County Fire-Rescue, the site is allegedly frequented by members of the department, and Mittendorff’s tormentors included self-identified coworkers.
The tawdry sequelae of the Mittendorff saga included a women’s program officer being named (after the position had been vacant for years), then quitting, claiming the department wasn’t serious about ending a culture of bullying and retaliation that may have victimized Mittendorff and others. Chief Richard Bowers also ultimately resigned, and in May the ACLU filed an EEOC complaint on behalf of a pair of female battalion chiefs, including the former program officer, Kathleen Stanley.
To replace Bowers the department named John Butler. A 25-year veteran of the fire service, Butler led Maryland’s Howard County Fire and Rescue for four years and served two tours as a Marine. He is also African-American.
And just as some of the posters at Fairfax Underground didn’t care for women in the fire service, some also didn’t like the idea of Butler as their new fire chief.
An ensuing post, “New Fairfax County Fire Chief Named” (later renamed “Darkness Cannot Drive Out Darkness”), had collected more than 130 comments and almost 7,700 views as of August 9. Many were grotesquely racist and riddled with slurs. Many posters presumed Butler’s skin color was the primary qualification earning him the top job. The thread drew the attention of public-safety journalist Dave Statter and the Washington Post, among others, and prompted an internal department investigation.
Of course we don’t know how Fairfax leaders selected their new chief or even how many commenters in that thread were actually department members (though Statter, a once-firefighter and longtime reporter based in Virginia, concluded, “The way many of them are written, it’s a pretty safe bet firefighters made some of the comments. And some of those posting seem to have insider knowledge of the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department.”1).
Like any workers, emergency personnel have a right to opinions on their bosses’ qualifications. But if you saw that thread, it’s hardly debatable that many posts were driven by low, ugly racism. That’s in character for the site. We won’t reprint its more repulsive thread titles here, but you can find them if you’re curious.
It’s not news that the Internet hosts many lowbred people. It’s also not news that the fire and emergency services are highly traditionalist, with many members holding views about women and minorities that aren’t exactly aging well in 2018. And while obviously it’s not all firefighters or everyone at Fairfax inflicting such national embarrassment on their department (to the contrary, some stood publicly against it), it also shouldn’t surprise anyone that those two groups still have some regrettable overlap.
It’s time for that to end. It’s time for the racists and misogynists of EMS to go back in the closet or, better, go do something else. That’s why, this month, the EMS World editorial staff takes the unusual step of publishing this joint editorial, agreed upon and signed by each of us. We say this individually and on behalf of our publication, conference, and brand:
Racists, sexists, and bigots have no place in the emergency services. Your time is through. Leave now.
Butler has vowed to run a department that’s dignified and respectful for all. We have no doubt most of his personnel want the same. We stand with them and all in EMS who seek a field that’s broad-based, welcoming, and professional to everyone.
Editor's note: For related content, watch for November's cover story on sexual misconduct/harassment in EMS.
1. Statter D. Infamous website provides racist welcome for Fairfax County’s new fire chief. STATter911, 2081 Jul 31; https://www.statter911.com/2018/07/31/infamous-website-provides-racist-welcome-for-fairfax-countys-new-fire-chief/.