The recent controversy about a firefighter in Alabama who was dismissed for having a tattoo that purportedly did not conform with department policy has raised the difficult issue of how to develop and enforce grooming standards.
How can a department write reasonable and enforceable standards that apply equally to everyone? How does a department deal with variations in hair style and color, piercings and jewelry? And what about tattoos?
Hair standards were the first to come under scrutiny in the 1980s when women began being hired as firefighters in greater numbers. Rules that required military-style haircuts for all firefighters were equally imposed on women at some departments. Other departments adjusted these standards, for example, to say that hair had to be above the collar, either by being cut short or pinned up.
But some departments refused to even reconsider the old standard. And not surprisingly, people started finding ways to circumvent the intention of the rule. One woman with long hair who did not want to cut it started wearing a short wig to work. And a woman whose short hair met the standard as written dyed her hair to be purple and gold stripes. Since the existing policy did not address hair color, she was technically in compliance. However, her action motivated the department to reopen discussion about hair standards and develop a new, more comprehensive policy, which also included language that any firefighter’s hair color must be “a color that is natural for human hair.”
Taking a more collaborative approach to developing grooming standards can be in everyone’s best interests.
In February 2021, based on the work of a panel of soldiers from diverse backgrounds and functions, the U.S. Army expanded allowable grooming choices, especially to include hair styles that are often worn by African-American women. “This is one of the many facets of putting our people first and recognizing who they are as human beings,” said Sgt. Maj. Brian Sanders, senior enlisted leader of Army G-1’s uniform policy branch. “Their identity and diverse backgrounds are what makes the Army an ultimate fighting force.”
Managing jewelry, makeup and piercings is a slightly easier task with grooming policies, since all of these choices are readily changeable. Tattoos are a different story, however.
Without a doubt, 2023 is a different world from 40 or 50 years ago when many fire departments had narrow grooming policies predominantly written for white men, and tattoos were something that sailors might regret and gang members flaunted. Nowadays, tattoos are practically mainstream.
In fact, surveys show that 36% of all Americans between the ages of 18-29 have at least one tattoo. This number reaches 40% for those 30-39. At least 30% of U.S. college graduates have at least one tattoo.
Key factors for grooming policies
Fire departments have struggled to find a middle ground when it comes to tattoos. Some departments still have policies that any visible tattoo must be covered when on duty. This results in firefighters needing to wear long-sleeve shirts even in the heat of summer or covering their ink with bandages or forearm sleeves. Other departments developed policies that the number and size of any visible tattoos could be regulated. Others addressed the content or location of the tattoo, such as prohibiting tattoos located on the face or neck, or ones that include language or images that are offensive or discriminatory.
Developing a good grooming policy is a balancing act. On the one hand, you want to be specific enough that there is no ambiguity about what is and is not permitted. On the other hand, it can be ponderous to regulate every minute aspect of personal appearance (e.g., policy dictates how long fingernails can be).
The best grooming policies are grounded in fairness, inclusion, professionalism and safety. These are principles that every firefighter can agree with.
Fair: Grooming policies must apply equally and fairly to all members, from the chief to the newest firefighters. This was an issue in the Alabama case – that the new firefighter was dismissed for a type of tattoo that was allegedly tolerated for a more senior member of the department.
Ambiguous language can lead to disparate application of policies. For example, one department’s policy prohibits visible tattoos but allows a tattoo to “peek” out from a uniform shirt sleeve. But what constitutes “peeking?” Is it possible that one firefighter could face discipline while another gets a pass?
Inclusion: Inclusion is important in grooming policies. This was the basis of the recent changes in Army policies. For example, having a hair standard that cannot apply to those with different textures of hair will necessarily exclude those individuals.
Professionalism: Professionalism is the basis for all grooming policies. Firefighting is a uniform service, and having a policy that aims toward a uniformly professional appearance is a reasonable goal. The public must trust firefighters, and if some aspect of their appearance is alienating or threatening to the general public, that is a problem. For this reason, body art that professes political views is as inappropriate as a T-shirt or a hat that expresses those views.
But it is important to remember that what most people consider professionally appropriate continually changes, and policies must likewise be open to change.
Safety: Finally, safety is the heart of the fire service ethos, and including safety concerns in grooming policies can be justified. For example, unrestrained long hair can be a safety hazard, but that same length of hair when suitably restrained is acceptable. Likewise, jewelry can pose a safety risk. The new Army standards specifically address this issue.
Common identity consensus
There will always be some variation in how people look on the job, as members represent different races, ethnicities, genders, generations and physical types. The choice to be part of a uniformed service means that members acknowledge a common identity beyond just themselves that serves a higher purpose. Framing grooming standards in this context will lay the groundwork for finding consensus among members.