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Indian River County firefighters press county to create light duty policy for firefighters

Posted at 11:32 PM, Mar 06, 2018
and last updated 2018-03-07 07:49:51-05

Putting themselves, their unborn babies and possibly the public in danger.

Firefighters in Indian River County are putting the pressure on county leaders to do more to protect pregnant firefighters.

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Fire Union President John O’Connor said Indian River County is one of just two counties in the state with paid fire fighters that do not have a light duty option for pregnant firefighters.

The other county, Manatee County, does not have any women currently pregnant.

Tuesday, more than two dozen Indian River County firefighters and their supporters urged county commissioners to consider adopting a light duty policy for county employees.

“We have a female who is eight months pregnant and expected to go into a burning building and perform firefighting duties. Let that sink in for a minute,” O’Connor said.

“I am big, and tired, and definitely uncomfortable,” Nicole Morris said Tuesday.

Morris is an Engineer and solo medic for the Indian River County Fire Department. She’s come to terms with the fact that she will be  responding to emergency calls until the day she has her Cesarean section in May.

“I don’t expect to see change before my pregnancy is over, I’m too close to the end,” Morris said.

Firefighters and other union representatives stressed to county leaders that there are ways to amend the current contract for firefighters, to allow light duty, without waiting until the next negotiation period in 2019.

Commissioners, however, said they could not make any decisions now.

O’Connor also asked commissioners to conduct a gender disparity study.

Morris is among the firefighters who want to know if Fire Chief John King is treating women differently than men.

She says she has been dealing with unfair treatment from Chief King throughout her pregnancy.

Indian River County firefighters have a cap of 12 shift exchanges per year. They allow a firefighter to cover a shift for someone now so they can have one of their shifts covered later.

Morris has to use all of her vacation and sick time and max out her shift exchanges to take enough time off after she gives birth.

King, she said, made that nearly impossible to do.

She was only able to switch shifts nine times with firefighters of the same rank. To switch with someone of a different rank, she has to get approval from King, which he is authorized to give under his discretion.

“And he denied me,” Morris said.

King did approve similar requests, however, for others.

“He approved the same request for several other men, with someone of unequal rank, for education and for the firefighter’s fair. Non-safety, non-health related,” Morris said.

Another engineer and solo medic, Christen Brewer, said she has also struggled with family needs because of King and worries men might be getting preferential treatment.

She gave an example Tuesday where she said King would not approve her request to work an opposite shift than her husband, who is also a firefighter, so they could better take care of their child.

“He denied that ability, while letting four other men do the same thing I was asking for. This went on for 6 months,” Brewer said. 

“I think it’s very apparent that there’s an issue here,” Morris said.

Commissioners did not take any action regarding the disparity study, but Commissioner Joseph Fletcher did pressure the chief to work with Morris during her final weeks of pregnancy.

“If we’re in the 8th month of a pregnancy, I think this is the time for discretion,” Flescher said.

King retires in the spring.

Firefighters Tuesday said they are hopeful the next chief will support a light duty pregnancy policy.