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Cincinnati fire chief terminated over 'unhealthy' workplace culture toward women

Former Cincinnati Fire Chief Michael Washington speaks to reporters at the scene of a seven-alarm fire in Camp Washington March 4.
Nick Swartsell
Former Cincinnati Fire Chief Michael Washington speaks to reporters at the scene of a seven-alarm fire in Camp Washington March 4.

Cincinnati City Manager Sheryl Long Friday notified Fire Chief Michael Washington that he is being terminated, a news release from the city says.

In the release, Long says multiple complaints from female Cincinnati Fire Department employees about a hostile work environment toward women in the department led to a need for change. The city manager's office ordered Washington undertake a workplace climate assessment, but says that report was never done.

The city then contracted Women Helping Women to deliver trainings to CFD staff on those issues, but the organization and city administration weren't satisfied with the way Washington implemented the initial trainings, the city says. A memo from Women Helping Women pinned the culture problems on department leadership and a "boys' club" mentality.

"Overwhelmingly, from female participants, we heard that their voices are not engaged or present in leadership decisions, including promotional panels, and a sentiment of zero confidence in issues of harassment being adequately addressed by [the] city," that memo reads. "Following the training we received calls to our hotline and directly to staff for support."

Now, Long says, the city doesn't believe Washington can make the required changes to the department's culture.

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

Washington released a statement highlighting his 30 years as a firefighter with CFD and saying he has retained Finney Law Firm as legal counsel in the matter.

"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," Washington said in the release. "My time at the department has been one of my life's most rewarding experiences and I will be forever grateful for my chance to serve."

Assistant fire chief over the Fire and Emergency Medical Services Operations Division, Steven Breitfelder, is now interim chief. The city will contract a third-party firm to conduct a national search for a permanent chief.

The city cites other issues in its news release, including the chief's absence during a major fire last month. Mayor Aftab Pureval says he supports the leadership change.

“Every employee deserves a safe and fair workplace, and we have to unequivocally reject and rectify violations of that environment,” Pureval said in a statement. “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.”

RELATED: Fire department's crisis goes far beyond a staff shortage: 'Our need is critical'

The city has released documents related to Washington's dismissal here.

This article will be updated.

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Nick Swartsell