Cases of Fire Departments Behaving Badly

By: Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

Back in November 2017, I was moved to write about pregnant firefighters and they struggles they endure just to keep a job they love and start—or add to—a family. A post on LinkedIn by my fire service colleague and blogger-in-chief at Fire Law Blog, Curt Varone caught my eye:

A lawsuit filed by a Chicago Fire Department paramedic will proceed after a US District Court judge ruled on the city’s motion to dismiss her allegations of pregnancy and gender discrimination.

Paramedic-in-Charge Sarah Spriesch filed suit last February in Cook County Circuit Court accusing the Chicago Fire Department of pregnancy discrimination under state and federal law, sex discrimination under state and federal law, and violation of the Nursing Mother’s Act.

The Hits Just Keep Coming

In Tampa (Fla.), a U.S. District Court judge ruled that a former Tampa (Fla.) Fire Rescue Department firefighter should be reinstated to her job with the department, nearly two years after she filed a federal lawsuit against the city and was fired the next day.

In a trial that started in November 2017, a jury found that the city had discriminated against former firefighter Tanja Vidovic because she was pregnant and then retaliated against her—by firing her the next day–for complaining. The jury awarded Vidovic $245,000 in damages hearing from about 20 witnesses during the four week trial.

Included in the February 19, 2018 story published by the Tampa Bay Times, were three additional links to stories involving female firefighters and Tampa Bay Fire Rescue:

Women face multiple hurdles within Tampa Fire Rescue (April 6, 2015)

Tampa female firefighter fired after filing harassment lawsuit (April 7, 2016)

Jury awards former Tampa firefighter $245,000 in discrimination case (Dec. 7, 2017)

And then we have the case of a Florida firefighter who is seven-months pregnant and is being told by her fire department’s leadership that she will have to carry out her normal duties until she gives birth.

Source: WPTV News, West Palm Beach, Florida

Why? Because the 2016 contract between the International Association of Firefighters Local 2201 and the Indian River County Emergency Services District prohibits her employer from assigning her to modified duty. She’s been given no accommodations, which her doctor insists is unhealthy both for her and the baby.

Now let me pause her for a moment before we get further into this matter. A couple of days ago, me and Mrs. A met a couple who are our neighbors for lunch. Mel, who delivered a healthy baby boy just before Christmas 2017, was telling us how she had to cut all dairy products from her diet because her breast milk was making her 2-month-old baby sick. She said that within 48 hours of getting rid of dairy, his symptoms had cleared up completely.

So, men there’s your physiology lesson for the day. Now, if that’s happening with milk in the mother’s system, what about all the “nasty stuff” that firefighters are exposed to while fighting fires? The carcinogens and other “bad actors” that we’re all talking about that are in that toxic soup we call smoke.

So, you must ask yourself (As have I), “What in the world were labor and management in Indian River County thinking when they developed and approved a contract with this language in it?

“Bargaining unit employees [firefighters] shall not be entitled to light or restricted duty for non-duty related illness, injury, or condition (such as pregnancy), except as required by applicable law.”

A colleague, who is an attorney very familiar with pregnancy and work discrimination law, enlightened me on situations like this pregnant firefighter and her situation. See, there’s the law and then there’s what’s the right thing to do, regardless of the law. These are two completely different angles on the same issue.

According to my source, “This is what the fire Service needs to concern itself with. Let’s educate people to do what is right – knowing the laws is important as well – but the law clearly provides that pregnant employees can be treated better than other employees similarly unable to work; they just cannot be treated any worse.

Anybody in Indian County, Florida listening?

Pregnant Firefighters: What Men and Women Need to Know

But what really gets me ire up is…

Fire department leaders and a judge who appear to be living in the “stone age.” In Firefighter Vidovic’s lawsuit, she

Former Tampa Bay (Fla.) Fire Rescue Firefighter Tanja Vidovic.

asked that the court direct Tampa Fire Rescue to install separate bathroom facilities for women at all its stations within five years and establish specific policies for promotions, breast-feeding and work-hours for pregnant firefighters.

In her seven-page ruling, Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich denied Vidovic’s request, writing that those policies, “are best left to the City of Tampa to create and implement.”

Really? In an April 2015 story in the Tampa Bay Times, it was reported that of Tampa’s 22 fire stations, only six have partitioned sleeping areas and designated male and female bathrooms and showers. At those 16 stations—without separate facilities–women can either wait until there are no men in the bathroom and lock the door or use the officers’ bathrooms, which often requires walking through the officer’s private room.

So, we have a pretty good-sized fire department in an equally good-sized city that doesn’t have separate bathrooms in all its fire stations, almost three years after it was in the news. And the department apparently doesn’t have specific policies that address pregnant firefighters, you know, policies that would make sure that it’s following federal law in these matters. How is this not managerial malpractice on the part of the fire chief and their senior staff?

How can any person feel that they’re doing a good job as a fire chief when their officers and firefighters are not being guided by policies—the governing documents for any organization—that are up-to-date, congruent with all federal and state laws, rules, and regulation, and focused on “doing the right thing”?

Oh, and you’re getting taken to court and losing because of it. Just saying.


About Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

Battalion Chief (Ret.) Robert Avsec served with the men and women of the Chesterfield County (VA) Fire and EMS Department for 26 years. He’s now using his acquired knowledge, skills, and experiences as a freelance writer for and as the “blogger in chief” for this blog. Chief Avsec makes his home in Cross Lanes, WV. Contact him via e-mail, [email protected].