When Fairfax County Police Lt. Col. Suzanne Devlin had her first baby in 1985, she returned to police work just two weeks later. Two years later, when her second child came along, she was back just as fast.
Devlin recalls pumping breast milk in the car and delivering it to her nanny during the lunch break. She remembers working to lose those extra pounds quickly.
"I was trying to be taken seriously, to be upwardly mobile," Devlin said. "Everybody said, 'You won't come back. You just want to have babies.' "
Although there's no question that public safety agencies have become much more accommodating for women who are raising families, Fairfax County's public safety officials said their ranks still have far too few women. A recent report by the county's Women in Public Safety Task Force shows that the challenge of balancing family and an unusual work schedule, as well as tough physical requirements, continue to deter many women from careers in public safety.
The task force, created last year as a joint effort by the county police, sheriff's office and the fire and rescue department, has suggested ways to attract and keep female employees. The county Board of Supervisors is considering the recommendations and also directed the panel to gather information on ways that neighboring jurisdictions recruit women.
"We need to do what we can to make our workforce representative of our population in Fairfax County," said Supervisor Gerald W. Hyland (D-Mount Vernon). "We need to reach out to make that happen instead of letting it happen."
Recent statistics show that women fill 147 of the county police department's approximately 1,290 positions, said Devlin, a task force member. The fire department has 82 of 1,198 slots filled by women, and the sheriff's office, which has 465 positions, employs 89 women.
Once women do join, keeping them is tough. The task force found that 75 women were hired by the police department between 1996 and 2000 but that 24 left in the same period. Over the same five-year stretch, 31 women were hired by the fire department and 31 left.
The task force members interviewed women in their departments and learned that difficulties in securing child care as well as strict scheduling and leave policies made it hard for them to stay in the jobs.
"Women said they were looking for more support in alternatives in child care and more creativity on returning-to-work policies," Devlin said. "Most women leave to do the family thing, and they want to do the family thing. It's a real cultural battle to continue to bring women into public safety."
Among its recommendations, the panel has suggested asking the county's Office of Children to help educate women in public safety about alternatives in child care. The task force also has suggested that the office work with child care providers to develop programs suited to employees who work unpredictable or unusual hours.
In addition, the task force recommended the creation of a physical fitness support program across all three departments to help women ease back into top physical condition when they return from maternity leave. The program could include training on issues including nutrition and postpartum depression.
The task force also asked the county to develop "creative scheduling strategies" to accommodate workers with children.
Hyland said the supervisors would act once they review how other counties are handling the same issue. "It's always helpful to see what others have been able to do," he said. "We do that when we look at our salaries and benefits and everything else."
Meanwhile, officials from the police department, sheriff's office and fire department are stepping up efforts to hire more women.
Last year, the county held its first Women in Public Safety Career fair. And recruiting posters are now going up in supermarkets, shopping malls and health clubs.