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Harassment Woman Faced Before Her Death Underscores Rampant Sexism In Firefighter Culture


Nicole Mittendorf was the 31-year-old Virginia firefighter and paramedic who disappeared earlier this month. Searchers finally found her body in the Shenandoah national forest and the state medical examiner determined that she killed herself. Before her death and continuing even after, Nicole Mittendorf was the victim of online harassment from people, including some who claim to be fellow firefighters who attacked her for her work and for being a woman. The Virginia State Police say they found no evidence the attacks led directly to her suicide, but her chief wants the lewd and horrible posts removed. And Nicole Mittendorf's story has underscored the troubling persistence of sexism in the firehouse. Mary Beth Michos is a veteran firefighter in Virginia and leader of the International Association of Fire Chiefs. Thanks so much for being with us.

MARY BETH MICHOS: You're quite welcome.

SIMON: I'm told you began your career as a firefighter in 1973.

MICHOS: In 1973, I started primarily in the emergency medical services track in the fire service.

SIMON: And in the days before there was such a thing as cyberbullying I wonder how much bullying, intimidation or threats or insults or suggestive comments you had to endure.

MICHOS: Well, I can say I've had a really successful career, and I've loved every minute I've been in the fire department. But back then, we didn't call it bullying. I guess it was more harassment. And I really doubt if there's any women in the fire service who at some point hasn't experienced some form or another. Unfortunately back then, when there was comments made, maybe even insulting comments made, anything that we would classify as harassment, we usually know who made it. Frequently they made it to our face and it was something that we could handle. But this whole new cyberbullying is very different from that.

SIMON: Do you know, Chief Michos, how - what the percentage of firefighters is at the moment - women firefighters in the United States right now?

MICHOS: It's below 4 percent. In 2008, there was a study done and at that time they said it was about 3.7. And to be truthful, as I look across the country, I don't think we've increased that much in numbers in the fire service.

SIMON: Do you think it would be a good thing if the percentage of women in the firefighting and Emergency Medical Services Corps rose from just under 4 percent to - I don't know - 15 or 20 percent?

MICHOS: Well, it's interesting. The study that was done back in 2008 said that probably a good number would be 17 percent 'cause we've always wondered - people said we should reflect our community and our communities are - they're usually 50 percent women and that's not a realistic number I think for the type of work we do in the fire service.

But sure it would be good. Women have brought about a lot of needed changes in the fire service. It's made us look at the physical agility testing that we do pre-entrance to make sure that the test is valid. It's made us look at our equipment and the gear that we provide firefighters 'cause firefighters, whether they're men or women, come in all sizes. The issue of privacy within the fire stations - men want privacy to some extent the same as the women do. So what has been good for the women coming into the fire service has been good for everybody in the fire service.

SIMON: What do you tell young women who might come to you and say I've been thinking about the life of a firefighter or an emergency medical worker, and I don't know. What can you tell me? Is it a good of life?

MICHOS: I'd tell them that it's a fantastic life, and it's not just a job. It's a way of life. We're hearing right now about the harassment issues and about other negative things, but the fire service is a great profession. The people that come to the fire service generally are the greatest people you're going to run into. They're people who wouldn't hesitate to lay down their lives to save another life. So what we're hearing now, you know, I don't know what's motivating them to do this. I just can't figure that out mentally because I think people who come into the fire service to me are all heroes, and heroes don't do things like this.

SIMON: Mary Beth Michos - she's a veteran firefighter and senior adviser to the International Association of Fire Chiefs. Thanks so much for being with us.

MICHOS: Oh, you're quite welcome and thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.