Fire Department Rebuked On Grooming Standards

A federal judge has ruled that the Washington, D.C., Fire Department cannot enforce its grooming standards against four firefighters who refused to shave their beards or cut their hair.

In April, District of Columbia Fire Chief Ronnie Few began enforcing a four-year-old policy that prohibits hair below the middle of the collar or beards that are more than a quarter-inch long. He said his action was based on his desire to reduce firefighter injuries.

In his written order, Few said the regulation is being enforced "to increase discipline, uniformity, safety and esprit de corps throughout this department." Few has expressed the belief that religious expression should not supersede providing adequate safety. In particular, he said he is concerned that long hair would not fit under a helmet or that a beard would make a proper face mask seal difficult or impossible.

When Few announced plans to enforce the grooming policy, several firefighters whose religious beliefs require them to maintain beards or long hair sought assistance from the local American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) chapter. Six firefighters filed a lawsuit challenging the policy in May. Four of the six had been placed on administrative leave and faced dismissal from their jobs. The other two had trimmed their beards and hair, but sought the court's permission to grow them back.

The firefighters argued in part that the policy violated their rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Congress enacted this law in 1993 to protect the rights of individuals to practice their religion. The government can interfere with religious practice only if there is a compelling need to do so, and the government's action is the least restrictive solution.

According to Arthur Seltzer, the ACLU's legal director for the National Capitol Area, the firefighters did not dispute that safety is a compelling interest. They argued, however, that there are less restrictive ways of providing a safe work environment. Further, Seltzer said that the fire department was unable to identify any firefighter injury caused by long hair.

In issuing a preliminary injunction prohibiting the grooming policy's enforcement, Judge James Robertson said the policy violates the firefighters' rights, and it cannot be enforced against firefighters whose religious beliefs require them to grow their hair or beards. The court did not prohibit enforcement of the policy against other firefighters who do not claim religious reasons for growing their hair or beard.

Robertson appeared sympathetic to the department's reasons for its policy. He was quoted as saying, "Nobody can question - and I personally commend - the fire department for pursuing that policy for the reasons stated." He agreed that the policy should be implemented, but it violates the federal law.

No one can question the necessity for the department to provide firefighters with the safest possible working environment. However, the department's policy created a conflict between the interests of firefighter safety and their religious beliefs.

Unfortunately, the chief's position that the standard was necessary to provide an adequate level of safety was undermined by shortcomings in the department's safety program. In particular, D.C. firefighters do not undergo face mask fit tests. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) recommends annual fit testing and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires annual checks.

Some D.C. firefighters report that they have not been fit tested for years. Depart-ment spokesman Alan Etter has acknowledged that the tests should be conducted, but are not. Reportedly, the department owns testing equipment, but lacks personnel qualified to conduct the tests. In April, Etter said that efforts were being developed to conduct regular fit tests. (The department declined to comment to Firehouse® on this case.)

Promoting firefighter safety may indeed be Few's motivation for enforcing the grooming policy, but the department's failure to perform basic safety measures such as fit testing calls this into question. Local firefighter union officials (who supported the firefighters in this case) were publicly critical of the policy in light of the failure to conduct fit testing.

Many fire departments have grooming codes that include restrictions on hair and beards. An International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) Internet database provides several of these codes as models. However, the D.C. decision is not likely to affect other departments. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, upon which the decision is based, does not apply to other fire departments. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in a separate case that state governments and their political subdivisions (local governments) are exempt from the act. The District of Columbia must comply with the law because it is not a state.

Although this particular case may have a limited direct impact on other departments, it offers an important lesson. All emergency services departments are well advised to review grooming policies. Cultural and legal trends, such as an increased attention toward cultural diversity, raise questions about the assumptions underlying grooming standards (and other personnel policies).

There have been legal challenges to dress and grooming codes in a variety of other work places. Although the D.C. case may not serve as a direct legal precedent for challenges to other departments, the challenges will come. Unless fire department grooming policies can be clearly related to an essential element of job performance - such as improved safety - they will be vulnerable to legal challenge.

Fire departments should carefully consider whether policies implemented in the name of safety really do improve safety. Don't undermine the credibility of a safety program by tacking onto it marginal mandates that are of unproven benefit.

What Is Your Department's Policy On Facial Hair? recently polled 5,598 firefighters across the country. Here are the results:

  • 7.1% No facial hair
  • 67.1% Moustache only
  • 6.9% Neatly trimmed beard and goatee
  • 15.7% No policy
  • 3.2% Other

Steve Blackistone, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is an attorney and a member of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad in Montgomery County, MD.