With everything you have going on as a fire department leader, you probably haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about nursing mothers (unless you are one). Pregnancies among your firefighter ranks are likely few and far between; in fact, you may not even have a single female firefighter on your department.
But that doesn’t mean you can ignore the issue entirely. Fire departments must comply with federal law, and federal law requires employers to provide nursing mothers with a suitable location to express breast milk and reasonable break time to do so.
In our work with thousands of public safety agencies across the country, we often run into chiefs who have no awareness that such a federal requirement exists. Even in progressive fire departments, men still far outnumber women, and policies have been slow to catch up as a result. But departments that fail to account for the needs of new mothers are opening themselves up to considerable risk.
“But we don’t have any female members.” Let’s take for granted that you believe that diversity is a good thing in the fire service. Policy has a direct impact on culture. Therefore, policies that support the integration of women into the department can help you recruit women. Of course you’re not going to go running through the next job fair waving your lactation breaks policy. But as you build a culture that supports the needs of women, including new mothers, the word will get around. And having a lactation breaks policy and related policies on the books can help demonstrate your department’s commitment to diversity, should you be challenged by employees or others.
“Pregnancies don’t happen without warning. There will be ample time to develop a policy if/when we need one.” Sure, that’s true—although pregnancies also don’t always follow the planned timeline, and policy review can be slow and cumbersome. But let’s take a step back. When a simple, federally compliant policy is easy to put into place, why not do it proactively? What message are you sending to female firefighters by not having this and other supportive policies in place? Retention is as important as recruitment. Having a lactation breaks policy, as well as clear guidance on family leave, can help you retain women firefighters who might otherwise be inclined to assume firefighting and motherhood don’t mix.
“OK, so there’s a federal law, but it’s no big deal. You just give them a place to breastfeed and make sure they have time to do it.” Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. The law requires a “suitable location”—do you know what that is? Will your company officers? Are there additional state requirements? Such confusion isn’t limited to small departments without HR support. In 2014, a Tucson firefighter sued because she found the location provided to her for lactation breaks was unsuitable. She also claimed she was retaliated against when she tried to bring attention to the federal requirements. Leaving the interpretation of this law up to your company officers is dangerous and unfair to all personnel.
A sound lactation breaks policy should contain the following elements:
• A statement outlining the department’s commitment to provide the legally required break time and facilities for nursing mothers
• How long after the child’s birth the accommodation should be made
• Guidelines for what constitutes reasonable time for lactation breaks
• What constitutes an appropriate room or other location for expressing breast milk
• How expressed milk should be stored
Integrating women into the traditionally male-dominated fire service produces many challenges and questions. But knowing what to do if one of your female firefighters is breast feeding doesn’t have to be one of them.