By: Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer
So, I’m sitting here wondering about what topic I should take on for this week’s post here. Not that I have writers block; no, the problem is so many topics and the quandary is which one should rise to the top.
And this week’s winner? It’s pregnant firefighters and maternity leave policies and all the crap that women firefighters must in many cases endure simply to have a family. But why are we still surprised that a fire service culture that was built by white men (predominantly) and that favors white men in all its aspects, and treats women so unfairly when they become pregnant and have to
step out of emergency operations for a time?
From 1997 to 2000 I co-managed the Chesterfield County (Va.) Emergency Communications Center (ECC) which was also the county’s PSAP (Public Safety Answering Point) for all 911 calls. My co-manager, Police Lieutenant Bob Pridemore, was a lovely man—and a great human being—detailed to this assignment as I was. Our ECC handled all dispatching and radio communications for police fire EMS and the County office of the Sheriff, in addition to answering those 911 calls.
Our authorized staffing was 64 full-time positions, but like most public safety dispatching centers we were chronically understaffed. We were particularly hard hit are the wireless telecommunications “boom” of the later 1990s when burgeoning wireless companies siphoned away our people with better salaries (A lot better!) and signing bonuses (Big signing bonuses!). It wasn’t long until we were down to having only 42 of those 64 positions filled. Mandatory overtime became standard operating procedure to maintain service to the public and our public safety partners
Learning about women and childbirth and the job
Amid our human resources staffing crisis we also were faced with pregnancy and maternity leave issues. During my 3-plus year hitch we always had at least one (sometimes two) of our women out on 12 weeks of Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave for their pregnancy. In most cases, our employee continued to work their ECO (Emergency Communications Officer) position well into their pregnancy, and then use the bulk of their 12-weekw of FMLA leave after the birth of their child.
I’d like to say that Bob and I were “super guys” about all this pregnancy and maternity leave stuff, but that would be a lie. See those policies and procedures were already written and institutionalized well before either of us took our first step into the Center. Our biggest challenge was not to “futz things up” and that’s easy to do if you got a good policy and good procedures to start with.
Talk early and often
But the third side of the “triangle” is good communication. Our women told us as soon as they learned they were pregnant. We then provided them with an information package that had our policy, procedure, and FMLA info and required paperwork for FMLA all in one package. And we explained it all to them.
And we kept those lines of communication open through daily conversations following their pre-natal appointments right through to the birth. How many bosses can say they got to see the first sonogram before the future grandparents? For me and Bob that was a regular occurrence.
As was having our new moms who were breast feeding (and needed to pump their breast milk while at work) using our office to do so. (Our Center at that time was very small—having never been designed as an emergency communications center—and our offices provided the only separate room with a lockable door that afforded privacy).
As were the new baby visits to the Center following the birth, where everyone celebrated the arrival of the “new” ECO, even those who were on duty because they’d been drafted to work OT to cover those previously mentioned empty slots (Not just the one for the new mom).
Oh, I completely forgot to mention that 98 percent of our staff were women of childbearing age. So, you can see why an employee taking 12 weeks of FMLA leave was not a question of “if” but more commonly “who’s next?”
It’s not a stand-alone policy, it’s part of the program
And that’s my advice to fire departments struggling with this issue along with their female firefighters. You can’t say you’re promoting a diverse workforce that more accurately reflects the demographics of your community and our nation and then not have a policy and procedure in place before you need it. More importantly, a policy that’s been properly vetted so that its implementation doesn’t create problems from the outset.
Your efforts to recruit and retain women for your department are doomed to fail if you don’t have those policies and procedures in place now. If every one of your male officers and firefighters aren’t informed and educated about how a female colleague will be treated when she finds out she’s pregnant, your efforts are doomed to fail.
See, from where I stand, this is part of “having each other’s backs.” So, if you’re OK with your fellow firefighter not being afforded her employment rights just because she’s pregnant you’re “speaking with a forked tough.”
The resources are out there. They’re on a thing called the Internet. It’s ruled by Google. Below are some links to get you started (Yes, most of them are past blogs of mine, so? They only get better with age, right?).