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New rule compels L.A. firefighters to cover up tattoos

By Kerry Cavanaugh
Inland Valley Daily Bulletin (Ontario, CA)

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles firefighters are heated up over a new policy that requires them to cover all visible tattoos while on the job, no matter whether they’re responding to a call or making dinner in the firehouse.

Since the policy took effect May 1, firefighters complain they’ve had to wear sweatshirts, long sleeves, and even skin patches to hide their body art.

David Navarro, 50, developed a rash from the patch he wears over the American eagle imprinted on his forearm.

The veteran got the tattoo while in the Marine Corps and said he never once heard a complaint about his or other firefighters’ tattoos. In fact, he said, he now gets more questions from people about the patch; they ask if he was burned or hurt on the job.

“A tattoo isn’t a safety issue. They just say it’s about appearance,” Navarro said. “I find it offensive in a way. You’re making me hide my pride for the military. I served my country for 27 years, and now they’re saying `Your eagle is no good’?”

But LAFD officials said they’re simply following the lead of other public-safety agencies that have cracked down on employees who come to work covered in body art.

“The majority of our members think it’s a good policy,” said LAFD Deputy Chief Emile Mack, who signed the new rule. “They look at what our image is when we come into contact with the public. We have hair standards and uniform standards, and those aren’t about the fire station but how we appear when we’re providing service to the public.”

The policy was in the works for at least five years, and the firefighters’ union had urged a prohibition on offensive tattoos. The two sides had agreed to go to an independent arbiter, who heard the facts and agreed with the union’s proposal.

The fire department enacted the complete ban anyway, said Jon McDuffie, vice president of United Firefighters of Los Angeles City. “It wasn’t a gradual plan. Nothing was grandfathered in,” McDuffie said. “It was: `Cover it up. Cover it up now. Never show it again, period.’ It was rather Draconian.”

Last week, the union filed a grievance after one chief officer instructed captains to check firefighters to make sure their tattoos were covered while they were sleeping. The policy change especially bothered some longtime firefighters, who suddenly found their tattoos had to be covered.

“I have lived, eaten and breathed the fire service for 20 years, and all of a sudden management does not consider my appearance professional. I’m a black sheep,” said John O’Connor, a longtime firefighter who has flames and fire-service tattoos over most of his arms.

O’Connor said he wants the Fire Department to change the policy so the prohibition on exposed tattoos would only apply to new body art. Or at least, he said, loosen the restrictions in the firehouse.

Firefighter Anthony Temple, 30, agreed. “I don’t mind wearing long sleeves when I’m out on a call if there’s a public- perception issue,” said Temple, who has what he calls a classic American tattoo: a collage of roses, ships, birds and clouds wound around his left arm to the wrist.

“My one big problem is the firehouse. I live there 24 hours a day, a minimum of 10 days a month. I feel like that’s my house. It’s where I live with my colleagues.

“They want us to maintain a professional appearance in public - OK. But in the fire station, when we’re cleaning and working on equipment too?”

While some firefighters with tattoos may be unhappy with the new rule, Mack said the department was trying to create a consistent policy. Allowing exposed tattoos in the firehouse was considered, Mack said. “But ultimately we had to look at why we’re implementing the policy. What image, ultimately, does the public see when we come out to serve them?”

The Fire Department is following the lead of the Los Angeles Police Department, which adopted a tattoo policy five years ago that requires officers to cover exposed tattoos. The LAPD said there was grumbling and complaints from officers then but that the policy is now accepted and there have been no officers disciplined for violating the rule.

Even the military is cracking down on tattoos. Tattoos were once almost a rite of passage for young Marines, but last year the Marine Corps prohibited new body art on the head and neck or covering arms or legs.

Top Marine brass felt the tattoo craze was getting out of hand, especially the proliferation of “sleeve” tattoos that decorate almost the full arm or leg, and are increasingly popular with young people.

The policy exempted existing tattoos, and Marines had to photograph and document their body art before the ban took effect last July.

City Councilman Dennis Zine, who heads the council’s personnel committee and is a retired LAPD officer, said he has no problem with the department’s tattoo policy.

“The Fire Department has a responsibility to project a professional image,” Zine said.

“When you’re given grooming standards for hair and facial hair, this just becomes another grooming standard.”

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