I get up at approximately 5:30 a.m., get dressed, and wake my kids: Micah, age 4, and Maggie, 2. We have breakfast together and then load into the car. It's a twenty minute drive to the L.A. Fire Department's child care center. I walk the kids to their respective age-appropriate rooms, get them checked in, and kiss them goodbye. While I am at work, they color, sing songs, play, and learn the alphabet. Their friends also play, learn, and have fun while their firefighting mommies and daddies are at work caring for the citizens of Los Angeles.
During the course of our day in the fire station, we are dispatched to a brushfire in Malibu. We expect to be gone for two to three days. We can't call to arrange for a transition of services for our children, but that's okay -- the center is staffed 24 hours a day. They will call our friends and family members to either pick up or visit our kids until we get back. And because the center is filled with the caring family of the LAFD, one of my peers will spend a little extra time there for some interaction with my children, just as I would do for them. And we know our kids are safe.
Right now, this scenario is imaginary, but in the next few years, it will become a reality. The LAFD has been working with the Los Angeles Unified School District to establish a child care facility at our department's training center. The facility will have approximately 100 spaces available: fifty for community members, and fifty for LAFD personnel. Currently in the planning stages, the facility will cover approximately 20,000 square feet and cost about five million dollars to build. Because the center will be available for community use, the school district will cover the cost of construction.
The long-term potential for this type of center is great. Options might include offering limited child care during training classes and seminars, job fairs, firefighter entry-level testing, recalls, brushfires, large-scale emergencies, and so forth. WFS statistics show that about a third of women firefighters are married to or involved with other firefighters, and 11% are or have been single parents. The cost of child care, and difficulty finding quality child care, can keep people from entering the fire service and may influence their career choices once they are there. Departmental child care facilities are a logical and cost-effective solution. According to Dr. Wendy Griffin, professor of women's studies at California State University Long Beach, "After less than four years, employers recover the costs of building on-site day care. After two additional years, they begin to turn a profit due to lower absenteeism and increased productivity."
People in the fire service often talk about the fire department "family," but do we really take care of our own? Couldn't we be providing better options for families? I think we could and should. I am lucky in that my two children are home full-time with their father. This lets me work without worrying about the care they receive. But most families can not afford to have a parent at home, and some people (like me) aren't really cut out to be homemakers. I know my husband works far harder than I do every day. I also know that if he were not able to, or did not choose to, be home with our children, I would seek out the very best care possible. Having child care that was conveniently located and could accommodate a fire department work schedule would be ideal.
In the past three years, LAFD women firefighters have given birth to at least fifteen children. The care arrangements for these kids vary. Family members care for some, others are at child care facilities, and still others are cared for by friends or neighbors. Much time is spent juggling work and parenting, and many of these firefighters worry about the care their children receive. Most of these moms and dads would gladly enroll their precious bundles in a quality LAFD child care program.
I spoke with some of my co-workers about their child care concerns. They told me that when they are comfortable about where their children are, they are more able to focus on work, which makes them a more valuable and productive employee. And having child care available on a flexible schedule accommodates employees' personal needs, such as early-morning shift changes for firefighter couples, drilling and studying for promotion, and extended care to cover late-relief situations.
One of my heroines on the job is a woman named Trish Peters, a truly courageous mom who completed the LAFD training academy as the single mother of three boys. It was incredibly difficult, and she says it would have been much easier if she had had child care available. "My youngest was four when I started training. It would have been nice not to worry about where he was. I found that often I would have to arrange the transition between daycare and babysitting situations while I was at work." Trish was fortunate to have family members who could care for her children. If she hadn't had that kind of support, she wouldn't be a firefighter today. She is currently an inspector, and is one of the people I know I can always count on. Even with her hectic home and work responsibilities, she has always been involved with fire department activities, and is always recruiting new women to the department.
Single parents and two-firefighter couples are becoming increasingly common in the fire service. The need for good, reliable child care will continue to become more important, and will factor greatly into a department's ability to attract the highest caliber employees. I anticipate the ability of the LAFD to offer on-site child care will be an important tool in the recruitment, retention, and productivity of those employees.
Los Angeles, California
This article originally appeared in the September-October 2000 issue of FireWork. It is copyright © 2000 Women in the Fire Service, Inc., and may not be reprinted without the permission of WFS.
NETWORKING THE WOMEN OF TODAY'S FIREFIGHTING WORLD, AND PROVIDING RESOURCES TO HELP BUILD THE FIRE SERVICE OF THE FUTURE