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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?
Firehouse.com 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