Cincinnati’s fire chief fired due to ‘workplace culture that is unwelcome toward women,’ city says

Published: Mar. 24, 2023 at 9:53 AM EDT|Updated: Mar. 24, 2023 at 4:19 PM EDT
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CINCINNATI (WXIX) - Cincinnati City Manager Sheryl Long fired Cincinnati Fire Chief Michael Washington Friday morning due to a “concerning workplace culture that is unwelcome toward women,” according to a city news release.

“City Administration and CFD are working to pursue long-term, sustainable workplace culture change, and Long does not believe that Washington is capable of implementing or overseeing such change,” the release reads.

“I want to be clear that I do not tolerate discriminatory, hostile, or unfair working environments in any City department,” Long said in the prepared statement.

“Cincinnatians place their trust in the Fire Department, which is tasked with keeping all of us safe. If the workplace culture within the department is unhealthy, that’s a violation of the community’s trust.”

Mayor Aftab Pureval said, according to the city news release, “Every employee deserves a safe and fair workplace, and we have to unequivocally reject and rectify violations of that environment. I fully support City Manager Long’s decision, and we will continue to support her during our work to make CFD a healthy and welcoming place for women.”

The city’s assistant fire chief over its Fire and Emergency Medical Services Operations Division, Steven Breitfelder, was immediately named the interim chief.

The city manager’s office will hire a third-party firm to conduct a national search for the next permanent fire chief.

Breitfelder will hold staff meetings with CFD to discuss workplace issues and set expectations, as well as address the Public Safety and Governance Committee of Cincinnati City Council.

Overall, Washington worked for the fire department for three decades, rising through every rank before achieving the top job when former chief Roy Winston retired in 2021.

A news release sent out Friday afternoon on Washington’s behalf said he “spent 30 years faithfully serving our community. His dedication to public safety and his service to our community cannot be diminished:

“I am thankful for my colleagues at the Cincinnati Fire Department, my friends, and my family for supporting me throughout my 30 years of service to the City of Cincinnati. My time at the department has been one of my life’s most rewarding experiences, and I will forever be grateful for my chance to serve.”

Washington retained the Finney Law Firm of Cincinnati, according to the release.

That law firm that has a history of successfully suing the city of Cincinnati, including a 2018 case over the so-called “Gang of Five” secret text messages and emails among now-former City Council members.

While city officials have been mum until Friday about issues with Washington, they detailed those in the news release Friday saying during his tenure, “multiple female CFD employees have voiced concerns about a workplace culture that allows women to be treated unfairly and with disrespect.

“Washington was ordered to deliver a climate assessment, but such an assessment was never conducted,” the release alleges.

The city manager said she invited the social services organization Women Helping Women to deliver training to CFD staff.

Both city administration and Women Helping Women “were unsatisfied with Washington’s implementation of the first phase of that training, as well as his overall lack of concern about workplace issues related to women,” the release states.

A memo from Women Helping Women describes uncovering the sentiment that “the problem lies with key leadership, namely Fire Chief” and that “language and actions perpetuate [a] ‘boys club’ mentality.”

Long cited other causes for Washington’s termination, “including an unexcused unavailability during a major fire in February 2022 and a willingness to flout the chain of command.”

A compilation of responsive documents, including the termination letter that outlines the causes for Washington’s firing, can be found HERE.

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