Earlier this year, a photo of a woman breastfeeding her son went viral on the Internet. The photo depicted not just any woman, but a woman dressed in fire turnout gear, holding the naked infant to her mostly concealed breast. The image was part of a series by an El Paso photographer who was depicting women breastfeeding at work.
Initial reaction to the photo was strong and largely positive. Then it was revealed that the woman in the photo was not actually a firefighter herself, but rather the wife of a career firefighter. And her husband's department disciplined him for allowing the photo to be taken using his turnout gear.
At this point, there was a tidal wave of response. Many criticized the chief of this department for his intention to discipline the firefighter. Some supported the chief.
Some found the photo beautiful. Others thought it was inappropriate. Others still questioned the infant's safety.
It seems helpful in this situation to take an analytical approach rather than an emotional one.
One unanswered question is exactly why the department intended to impose discipline on this firefighter.
- Was it because they found the photo sexual and offensive?
- Was it because he let a civilian use his department-issued gear without permission?
- Was it because the department feared liability because of the infant's exposure to the gear?
These are all very different questions that deserve to be considered separately.
First, for those who might be offended by a woman breastfeeding — get over it. Breastfeeding is healthy for an infant and recommended by the vast majority of doctors.
It is a natural act that is supported by law in the United States and most other countries. The EEOC has issued guidelines to support women who breastfeed or express breast milk at work, including the requirement for reasonable breaks to do so as well as the provision of a private space (not a bathroom) in which to take care of this natural process.
So then there is the issue of a commercial photograph being taken of a civilian in fire gear without that department granting permission. This is a legitimate concern.
Fire departments have the right to control the use of the equipment they provide to their members, especially if the name of the department is visible in the resulting photograph.
But wait, say some of the critics. How often do firefighters lend their coats and helmets to children or adults at presentations or events, and how many photographs have resulted? Does the fire department insist on permission for any of these photographs? Does it make a difference if the photograph is taken for commercial purposes?
There is a difference between commercial and private photography. And certainly fire departments should have a policy about how fire gear may be used when not directly employed by the issuing department.
At the very least, this firefighter should have asked permission from his department before allowing his gear to be used in a commercial photo shoot — with or without his wife being present. The fact that he didn't could be the result of misunderstanding or miscommunication, something easily remedied by clear guidelines in place.
Finally, although firefighters often let civilians, including young children, try on their turnout gear, should they? All fire departments now recognize the potential toxicity of turnout gear that has been used at a fire or other hazardous incident. Many have policies about the care and storage of fire gear, such as not allowing turnout gear to be kept in sleeping quarters at the station or in volunteers' personal vehicles.
So if fire gear is potentially hazardous to clothed adults, what might its effect be on a naked infant? This may be the most important question that arises as a result of this photo dust-up.
If fire gear is potentially hazardous (and we all know it is), then no one but the trained firefighters to whom it is issued should be directly in contact with it — not kids at career day, and certainly not nursing infants.
If you want to allow kids to dress up like firefighters at school programs, then purchase sets of bunker gear in small sizes that are specifically set aside for this purpose. Store this gear apart from the turnouts that have been in fires. Keep it clean and ready for close contact with your most vulnerable citizens.
As for the photo — even if the bunker coat in the photo was brand new and never used (which is unlikely, since it belonged to the woman's husband, a career firefighter), it seems misguided to promote an image of a woman breastfeeding while wearing a coat that by definition is contaminated with toxic products of combustion.
When firefighters are portrayed to the public, you want to show them doing their jobs right — wearing their seat belts, using their protective gear and following safety procedures.
Fire departments should celebrate with their members when they choose to become parents. They should support them in every way possible, including providing time and space for lactation and breastfeeding.
There are many ways to depict women firefighters who are also mothers. But if the intention is to honor firefighters, then they should always be shown doing their jobs safely, with protection of others and themselves as their highest priority.