ARLINGTON, Va. (WDVM) — Over a year ago, firefighter EMT recruit Brett Ahern alleged extreme bullying and hazing at the hands of one firefighter who was an instructor with the Arlington County Fire Department’s Training Academy.
“He went out of his way to make a spectacle out of me and that usually wasn’t done with other recruits, at least not as brazenly as it was with me,” he said.
But before there was Brett, there were other victims. Witnesses are speaking out on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
“I remember him making comments that ‘This rookie was autistic,’ and also hearing comments that certain women only got promoted because they were female or because of their race,” said one woman who left the department after her rookie year. “I did talk to somebody I really respected in the fire department and he told me, ‘That’s just how it is and you have to have thick skin.’”
Another recruit, who served in the military, left a pair of pressed pants in the locker room. He alleged the instructor strung them up the academy’s flag pole. Recruits were reportedly forced to do “walking lunges” around the academy grounds until they found them.
Another firefighter says a recruit couldn’t lock his broken locker, so he was forced to carry the contents around with him out in the field. “We were interacting with citizens, looking at fire suppression systems, fire alarm systems, doing some training out in the field,” he said. “So you now have a recruit carrying a black trash bag affixed to a pole while walking down the streets of Arlington County around all of the citizens.”
“We have to work cohesively as a team. If we compromise that trust or it’s in question then we have some fundamental problems,” said Fire Chief David Povlitz. He declined to comment on specific cases, but he says the county and the fire department have “well-established investigation systems.” Employees have the choice to report to their chain of command, the Office of Human Rights, to human resources, or to the County Manager’s Office.
“If we learn that something is occurring that is in violation of policy or regulation, we will immediately cease and desist that and then try to assess and to conduct a fair and impartial investigation,” Povlitz said.
Ahern says he was targeted a few weeks into the Training Academy. He selected the Arlington County Fire Department because it was located in a progressive county. “Chief officers were making statements while we were testing to get hired of things like, ‘Here in Arlington County we’re very progressive, we don’t tolerate bullying and hazing and we’re not the ‘good ol’ boys club here,’ so that really pushed Arlington to the top of my list of potential fire departments where I wanted to work,” Ahern said. “I wanted this job more than anything.”
Ahern says the instructor selected him to join his squad, and the instructor made derogatory comments when he learned Ahern’s religious background.
When it was Ahern’s turn to be class leader — an exercise to test a recruit’s leadership abilities — he says his classmates “knew it was going to be bad.”
If a recruit makes a mistake during training, Chief Povlitz says an instructor will make time for a so-called “alternative learning opportunity,” or ALO. He says ALO’s are meant to reinforce learning and they have to be approved by high-ranking officers.
“We are not going to demean anyone. We are not going to cause anyone any shame. We want everyone — all of our current members, incumbent members and new recruits — to understand there’s a better way to do it: here’s the skill, opportunity to practice, and we’ll move in that development cycle to make sure everyone can do everything the right way to our standards,” he said.
On one occasion, Ahern was instructed to wear a wall clock around his neck by a piece of rope. The instructor told him it was an ALO. “The clock was broken. I had to constantly reset it and if I was asked by a member of the cadre at any time what the time was, and if I didn’t constantly keep the clock reset and if the time was wrong under their watch, I had to do 10 prison pushups at any given time.”
While the clock was around his neck, he was also forced to carry an 8-foot section of a fire hose that was filled with rocks and sand.
“He was to carry that throughout the day and if it touched the ground he was going to be punished with prison pushups or some sort of severe punishment,” one firefighter remembered.
“It’s very mentally taxing,” Ahern said. “I mean my fellow classmates and other instructors saw me mentally deteriorate as the bullying and hazing got worse.”
“We were concerned, honestly, for his life. People were calling on him to check on him every night to make sure he hadn’t harmed himself,” a firefighter said. “People were more worried about making a mistake and more worried about their safety than actually learning the skills.”
Eventually, Ahern appealed to his chain of command and the fire department launched an internal investigation, led by the deputy chief, in which witnesses signed a confidentiality agreement.
“The hardest step is just reaching out to see if someone can be helped,” Povlitz said. Investigations may be internal. If cases are “more complicated,” Povlitz says the department may defer to the Office of Human Rights.
Investigations include formal interviews. Povlitz says “employee relation groups” will observe the company. After the investigation is completed, Povlitz says the department will take corrective measures, like additional training, assignments for professional development, or “progressive discipline.”
If a victim needs it, the department allows for a “grievance process.” Employees also have access to peer fitness mentors, a peer support team, and external, professional specialists.
Ahern says he was skeptical from the beginning of the investigation. “[The witnesses] had to tell the truth and they were still nervous. They felt unsafe and they felt as if the county was not looking after them. In this instance it felt like the system was not in place for those being bullied and hazed like me. It was in place to protect people like [the instructor] solely based on the amount of years of service he had.”
After the investigation was concluded, the instructor was removed from the training academy. “After some time on a light-duty assignment — choice of assignment — he was back in the field, riding special service,” one firefighter said. “Pretty much one of the better situations that could ever be provided for somebody who had such a significant impact on almost costing someone their life.”
Ahern says things didn’t get better after the instructor left. The instructor’s friends, who Ahern refers to as “the good ol’ boys club,” continued to harass and haze him. Ahern believes they force failed him during his module testing. The department dismissed Ahern after he received below 60% on two tests.
Ahern obtained a copy of the investigation report through a FOIA request. He says he was told the former instructor did, too, and has reason to believe he received an unredacted copy, which includes the witnesses’ names.
The witnesses, who are still with the department, fear retaliation. Some are installing security cameras outside their homes.
“I filed a civil suit because I felt like that was the only way that I can effect change and get my story out so people can know what’s really going on,” Ahern said. “I felt personally as if they were trying to sweep it under the rug.”
Povlitz says the department adjusts the Training Academy’s curriculum after every training cycle. “Every generation that comes through is slightly different and we encourage and we’re very interested in those differences that come in generation to generation. That’s kind of part of the interesting mix to see how we integrate everyone into the fire department.”
Some firefighters don’t believe the department has made enough changes. “I fear for my friends’ lives. I fear for everyone who’s went through this and this is bad that we actually have to sit through this,” one firefighter said.
The chief says employees can appeal if they’re unsatisfied with the results of an investigation. “If they’re not satisfied with what is occurring or what the response of the actions are, we have ways to engage in conversation and also resolve any conflicts to see if we can get everybody to a better place.”
Ahern says he was never told he could appeal.
“When is the stopping point?” One firefighter asked. “Is it when someone commits suicide? Is it when someone gets seriously hurt or injured? When is it enough when we take this serious and we can make that change?”
A spokesperson for County Manager Mark Schwartz declined an interview and released a statement: “The Arlington County Fire Department has an explicit prohibition against hazing. It will not be tolerated.” A spokesperson for the Arlington County Board deferred to the County Manager’s Office.