N.M. city seeks ways to increase numbers of female firefighters
A new lactation policy and a change in shift options were among initiatives proposed to Santa Fe's Community Health and Safety Task Force to address the FD's diversity issues
Sean P. Thomas
The Santa Fe New Mexican
SANTA FE, N.M. — A lactation policy for female firefighters and a change in shift options were two recommendations presented to the city's Community Health and Safety Task Force on Tuesday evening to address lingering diversity concerns within the Santa Fe Fire Department.
But female firefighters who've worked for the department say it's vital the city simply find more women to do the job.
It's absolutely imperative that we improve our diversity in order to be an effective workforce," a woman who works or worked for the department wrote in response to a survey about the issue. "There are no two ways around it."
The recommendations presented to the task force Tuesday came from a study designed for a diversity committee launched in 2020 at the direction of former fire Chief Paul Babcock after city paramedic Ramon Tsosie raised concerns over the city's lack of female firefighters.
While multiple women have been hired in other civilian roles within the department, only one woman has made it through the fire department's probationary period to become a firefighter in almost 12 years, fire Chief Brian Moya said during an interview Tuesday.
"We are trying to change," Moya said. "We are trying to get better, and we are trying to evolve."
Women make up about 8 percent of the approximately 1,115,000 firefighters in the United States, according to the National Fire Protection Association. In Santa Fe, the number is closer to 2 percent.
Only three of the department's approximately 180 sworn field staff are women, compared to seven in 2009, according to the presentation.
In an interview after the meeting, Moya said he wasn't sure why the numbers in Santa Fe were so low but suggested getting a larger applicant pool would result in more women making it through the general aptitude multiple choice test and the physical testing required to be hired.
He said more than 20 years ago, applicants per year could range in the 400s. He said the department now is lucky to receive 100 applications.
The presentation suggested some structural changes within the department could play a role, including a lactation policy.
Since the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, federal law requires employers to provide "reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for one year after the child's birth."
Employers also are required to provide a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public.
However, the law change does not require employers to have a specific lactation policy in place.
A draft lactation policy was presented to Babcock in August but was never presented to the city's Human Resources Department for review.
Emergency Medical Services Capt. Faith Applewhite suggested to the task force during the presentation that in addition to a lactation policy, a day shift might be beneficial to both new mothers and fathers in the department.
Currently city firefighters work two consecutive days before getting four days off. But Applewhite said day shifts, which would look closer to three straight 12-hour shifts, might be an option to explore for new parents.
"I have talked to a number of men who would like those accommodations for their families," she said.
Applewhite also noted smaller items, such as better-fitting uniforms for women and better bathroom and bunk accommodations, would help with hiring and retention.
"I think it is also imperative that we look at once women are in, is it a comfortable place to work? Is it a welcoming place to work?" Applewhite said.
Human Resources Director Bernadette Salazar said during the meeting her department would support the lactation policy but would have to review it to make sure it complies with city and union policies.
A refusal to provide a suitable workplace accommodations can prove costly for municipalities.
A Tucson firefighter was awarded a $3.8 million settlement last year in a 2014 lawsuit accusing that city's fire department of discrimination and retaliation after she asked for an area to pump milk and was denied.
While structural changes were discussed, others have suggested a cultural change also was needed to erase any perception of the department as a "boys' club."
Tsosie said part of the diversity committee's work included a survey of 13 women who previously or currently worked with the fire department.
In a section of the survey where respondents could write messages to the City Council and the fire chief, respondents highlighted a pressing need to attract more women into the firefighting field but also to address internal cultural issues.
Some women wrote a biting review of the department's handling of diversity, comparing it to a "college frat house."
City Community Health and Safety Director Kyra Ochoa acknowledged some of those concerns raised during the meeting and said the city would have to find ways to address them moving forward.
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