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Interim Cincinnati fire chief says work to make the department welcoming to women continues

Interim Cincinnati Fire Chief Steven A. Breitfelder speaks to City Council's Public Safety and Governance Committee on April 4, 2023.
City of Cincinnati
Interim Cincinnati Fire Chief Steven A. Breitfelder speaks to City Council's Public Safety and Governance Committee on April 4, 2023.

The interim chief of the Cincinnati Fire Department says his top priority is making the department welcoming to female employees.

On March 24, City Manager Sheryl Long announced she was firing then-chief Michael Washington and appointing Assistant Chief Steven A. Breitfelder as an interim leader. Long said Washington did not adequately address a hostile work environment toward women in the department.

Breitfelder spoke to City Council's Public Safety and Governance Committee Tuesday.

"I was appointed to the human resources division [in 2017], which probably isn't the most glorious position in a fire department to have," he said. "But I will tell you it is a very valuable learning position. I think that — to be in the position I'm in now — is going to serve me well."

READ MORE: Cincinnati fire chief terminated over 'unhealthy' workplace culture toward women

Long says Breitfelder's five years of experience in HR, plus the past year in the operations division, was a key part of her decision to appoint him interim director.

"To make sure that we had somebody that had been in the organization and also understood how to just take the ball and just keep on running with it," Long said.

The Cincinnati Fire Department is a "boy's club," according to a report from the organization Women Helping Women, which the city hired to conduct training.

"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."

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

Breitfelder says he'll meet with Women Helping Women this week to start phase two of the training program they started under Washington. Long says it hasn't started yet because they wanted to "reset" the process.

"We need to make sure that phase two training has the voices of the firefighters, specifically the women, in that training," Long said. "I don't think that happened as good as we wanted to the first time around."

Breitfelder says he worked closely with the Women's Employee Resource Group during his time in human resources.

"I look forward to regenerating that working relationship we have and moving forward with them," he said.

Breitfelder declined an interview with WVXU.

RELATED: Cincinnati Fire breaks ground on expanded campus for recruits

Breitfelder also faces ongoing problems of aging facilities and staffing shortages as new recruits fail to keep up with retirements.

Another reason Long cited for firing Washington was ineffective management in the acquisition of a training center. CFD broke ground on that new center in November. Long says once complete, the facility will help recruitment efforts.

Long plans a national search for a permanent fire chief.

"What I'm going to do is try to speed this, expedite it as much as possible, because when you're in limbo it's never good for the organization," Long said. "So I'm going to utilize what I can to get the right vendor on board and then hopefully we can have somebody in place this summer."

Local Government Reporter with a particular focus on Cincinnati; experienced journalist in public radio and television throughout the Midwest. Enthusiastic about: civic engagement, public libraries, and urban planning.