Free image of a house fire where a man was trapped in Suwannee County, a county located in the state of Florida.
At the March 6, 2018 meeting of the Indian River County (IRC) Commissioners, there was a request to speak from John O’Connor, President of the International Association of Firefighters L2201, regarding the need for a gender disparity study and a pregnancy policy for IRC Emergency Services employees.
Mr. O’Connor began his remarks by addressing the commissioners. “We have female who is eight months pregnant and is expected to go into a burning building and perform fire fighting duties. Let that sink in for a minute.”
Mr. O’Connor was advocating for light duty assignment policy for pregnant firefighters; as well as having the County conduct a gender disparity study.
“The County’s lack of a light duty policy is bad because the potential hazards faced by fire fighters caused by physical exertion, hyperthermia, exposure to carbon monoxide and other toxic hazards becomes magnified when we talk about a pregnant female and an unborn child.”
The State of Florida has 47 counties with paid professional firefighters and only two do not have a light duty option for pregnant firefighters.
Indian River County is one of the two. The other is Manatee County, which does not have any female firefighters.
At issue, in particular, is Nicole Morris, an IRC firefighter who is seven-months pregnant, who, prior to being admitted to St. Mary’s hospital in West Palm Beach on March 15, 2018, would have had to carry out her regular duties until she gave birth. She is now resting at home on sick leave.
According to a TCPalm.com report “she is scheduled to work her normal job until the day before her C-section even though her doctor has told her it is not good for her or the baby for her to be in the field this close to delivery. Morris, 35, said carrying 70 pounds of equipment, doing CPR and lifting patients is becoming more difficult.”
The county’s contract with the firefighters union says covered employees “shall not be entitled to light or restricted duty for non-duty related illness, injury, or condition (such as pregnancy).”
While Mr. O’Connor asked the Commissioners to “create a light duty policy and put it into effect immediately,” what ensued thereafter during the meeting was a series of derogatory public comments focused on IRC Fire Chief John King, having to do with gender discrimination, deliberate indiscretion, lies, safety and retaliation.
Indian River County Fire Chief John King (WPTV)
Mr. O’Connor spoke to the Commissioners about how the County has had an inconsistent policy on light duty, which was removed from their contract in 2005.
“Previously four pregnant females were granted light duty yet another was denied light duty. And more recently one of our fire fighters asked the Fire Chief King to approve three shift changes that require a fire paramedic to work out of rank to work out of rank as an engineer. That request was denied. But what is more ironic is that the fire chief has granted similar requests on multiple occasions over the last two weeks.”
He indicated it was a violation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and that Chief King has the authority to issue a general order to assign Nicole to light duty.
Here is the issue of deliberate indiscretion by Chief King.
Commissioner Joe Flescher spoke about how he had previously addressed the issue of light duty with Chief King. “The chief responded with it would be a case by case basis and the word discretion came out. And I just want to share that if I were in the eighth month of pregnancy (like Nicole Morris) it is the time for discretion. I do believe we should apply a little discretion just for this case.”
County Commissioner Joe Flesher
With respect to gender discrimination, Mr. O’Conner indicated that there is only one woman in the Department who has achieved the rank of lieutenant. “We have never had a female occupy any rank above that rank in the history of the department.”
Engineer and Solo Fire Medic, Christen Brewer addressed the commissioners about how she had to “fight to be hired here, had to fight to be promoted here, had to fight for my family” and that she was there now to fight for the women that are here now and yet to come. “But I love my job and the people that I work with.”
She spoke about how when she was more than seven months pregnant several years ago she responded to a drug exposure call “but he threatened to kill us and his parents. After that, I decided it was time for light duty and even requested a meeting and was told the County did not offer it”.
Engineer and Solo Fire Medic, Christen Brewer
Ms. Brewer ended up using some of her sick and vacation time to take off work before giving birth, minimizing the amount of time she could take off after giving birth.
It takes a very long time to accrue enough vacation time to take off for pregnancy needs. It could take six to seven years for a young woman to accumulate enough sick or vacation time to cover a pregnancy.
Then she said she was denied the ability to take a back-up engineer class required to become an engineer because she was pregnant.
After the birth of her second child in 2011, Ms. Brewer took the back-up class engineers class to be tested for the rank of engineer. After the test results came out she knew that she would promoted and went to Chief King to discuss her family status. At that time her husband was on a C shift and she asked to be put on a different shift because if she too was put on a C shift it would mean she would have no one every third day for 24 hours to take care of her children.
A few days later she found someone with equal rank and certification to do a shift transfer for her. “I emailed Chief King and he did not respond.”
But the day she was called and promoted she was moved to the C shift. She went to Chief King’s office and “begged him to let me do the shift transfer that she had previously reached. He denied that ability while letting four men to do the same thing I had asked for.
I had no body every third day to take care of my child. Thankfully some members of my department stepped up and did shift changes for six months.”
At some point during this process, Ms. Brewer eventually went to a few of the County Commissioners for help. She did not indicate what type of help she received.
Indian River County Commissioners
But, in terms of retaliation, after she went around Chief King to ask a few of the Commissioners for help, when she was in a training class, “my fire chief, Chief King, went into the training department and had me removed from the class”. The instructor said she was enrolled in the class and was on the roster and Chief King said: “I don’t care. Take her out of the class.”
“This was my punishment for coming to you all for help.”
In terms of lies, Ms. Morris’ father was the next speaker. He said: “We have been lied to by Chief King. The same man that boasts and speaks eloquently here about how he takes care of his firefighters and he is putting them at harms way.
His record speaks for itself. Obviously he has an issue with women being in the fire department. He should be ashamed. He should apologize to every parent of every firefighter under him, because he has lied to them; flat out lied to them.”
And then he went on to address the Commissioners and said: “I think you’re lying to your citizens who pay big tax dollars to be protected buy putting them at risk.”
This is bizarre. When Ms. Morris addressed the Commissioners, she said: “I originally went to chief King two years ago with my husband when we first got married and discussed with him what our options were going to be in order to plan a pregnancy…I wanted to see how I was going to do this and keep my job and be safe….I was told that if I was smart I would plan to have my pregnancy fall in line with the end of the current fiscal year and the new one. I don’t know who can plan a pregnancy like this…It just doesn’t work that way.”
Then there is the issue of firefighter safety.
Amanda Murdoch spoke next. Her husband, Steven Murdoch was a was an IRC firefighter for 18 years and resigned on December 17, 2017 for PTSD and mold toxicity. She wanted to give the Commissioners a “different perspective” on the discussion.
She began by thanking Commissioner Flesher for his earlier words of compassion.
She passed out two exhibits to the Commissioners with medical test results for her husband and her eight year old son.
Her husband’s results, who is in full-time treatment, showed he tested positive for environmental toxins he was exposed to as a firefighter. The next exhibit was for her son’s results which showed a correlation between what firefighters are exposed to and what is passed on to their children.
“This is really scary. My son is only eight years old and his tests were positive for the same toxins. So getting these pregnant firefighters into a position where they can only protect themselves, as well as their unborn child up to the point of delivery is very important. You can talk to firefighter’s families and we can see an increase in the issues with our children being born where these toxins were passed during inception.”
Prior to the beginning of Mr. O’Conner’s initial comments, County Attorney Dylan Reingold “highly recommended” that the the Board of County Commissioners not “engage on this matter today as it could lead to an unfair labor practice claim,” with respect to the County’s contract with the Firefighters Union.
Alternatively, by not engaging and not asking County Administrator Jason Brown to intervene and request Chief King to apply a little discretion just for this case the County may have set itself up for a situation where a female firefighter could file a federal lawsuit suit alleging she was discriminated against because she was pregnant and the city retaliated against her when she complained.
Please access this link to read how on December 7, 2017 a jury awarded a former firefighter $245,000 in damages, deciding she had proved two allegations in her federal lawsuit against the city of Tampa: That she was discriminated against because she was pregnant and the city retaliated against her when she complained.