Tattoo Policy

Question: Recently, there have been several news stories of fire departments that have required their members to cover all tattoos with uniform clothing, even if the tattoos are not offensive. Should a fire department have the right to require members to cover tattoos while on duty?

Growing up in a fire department household and then joining the service myself, I had a great “background” on which to build. I learned a lot just by listening to my dad discuss fire department issues with my mom and with other firefighters who visited. I learned that, in most cases, what “the chief” (or “the department,” as it was called) did was almost always the way it should be. My dad would say, “As long as they keep giving me a paycheck, I’ll do what they want me to do as long as it’s not illegal or against my moral judgment.” Of course, in the world of labor/management relations, the “department” was at times the enemy. But for the common firefighter, the way “the department” wanted things was the way it was going to be.

Late in my career, I was “the department,” so to speak. As deputy chief, and later assistant chief, I set policy on many occasions and tried to enforce all departmental policies equally. One of those policies was our T-shirt policy. At one time, we had many firefighters wearing different T-shirts in the station and on the street while overhauling and picking up from fires. Being a “uniform” department, we tried to enforce a policy that dictated the kind of T-shirt that would be acceptable. Then I had my heart attack in 2002. When the firefighters and medics finally reached me that evening, I knew two things: (1) Some of them were in “illegal” T-shirts and (2) at that exact moment, it didn’t matter to me what they were wearing. They saved my life.

Where are we now? Departments have a responsibility to live up to their mission, whatever their mission is. In doing so, rules must be established and enforced to maintain accountability and uniformity in the process of meeting the mission. But, are there limits on what “departments” can rule on?

—John “Skip” Coleman retired as assistant chief from the Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue. He is a technical editor of Fire Engineering; a member of the FDIC Educational Advisory Board; and author of Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer (Fire Engineering, 1997), Managing Major Fires (Fire Engineering, 2000), and Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer, Second Edition (Fire Engineering, 2008).

Editor’s note: A majority of respondents indicated that enforcing a tattoo policy would not be among the department’s highest priorities, given the many daily concerns they face. This statement is not included in the responses below.

Rick Lasky, chief,
Lewisville (TX) Fire Department

Response: We do not have a policy that regulates tattoos specifically, but we do have a policy that covers personal appearance including anything worn, hair style, uniforms, jewelry, general hygiene, and anything that might be offensive in nature. To date, we really haven’t had that many issues, none concerning tattoos, that we’ve had to deal with. Most were dealt with at the company level without much difficulty.

Body art has become quite popular throughout the country and in the fire service. As long as it is not offensive, we would not have an issue with it.

Steven Westcott, firefighter,
Perkins Twp. (OH) Fire Department

Response: The fire service needs to present a professional image in actions and appearance. Departments implement uniform standards and grooming standards, but now the recent “tattoo issue” has been pushing the status quo. Most tattoos have symbolic meaning for the individual. Department officials, to an extent, have the right to keep members looking professional by creating a tattoo standard, but it should be an issue for collective bargaining. Both sides would have to agree on what size, type, etc. would be acceptable for public display.

Thomas Dunne, deputy chief,
Fire Department of New York

Response: Tattoos are like other forms of fashion. They are currently in style but will probably be out 10 years from now. I am not a big fan of tattoos; however, the majority of tattoos I see on our firefighters are artistic expressions or symbols of individuality, pride in their job, military service, or 9/11 sentiments.

Departments would be much better served by emphasizing the health and safety concerns of firefighters (smoking and overweight, putting them at risk for heart problems) rather than wasting time playing the “fashion police.”

Jeffrey Schwering, lieutenant,
Crestwood (MO) Department of Fire Services

Response: We do not have a policy regarding tattoos. No member of our department has tattoos that could be considered offensive. If tattoos were visible and could be construed as vulgar or offensive, I believe we would quickly institute a policy to protect the positive image of the fire service and our department.

Brian Cudaback, battalion chief,
Arlington (TX) Fire-Rescue

Response:Our organization has struggled with a “body art” policy in the past but has yet to institute one. I believe a fire department has the right to require its members to cover any tattoo while on duty, just as we enforce a hair or dress policy. This question was much simpler to address when the worst tattoo a firefighter had on his body was his name, an anchor, or something that identified him as a military veteran. Most were covered up when wearing a short-sleeved uniform shirt. Today’s tattoos have become more graphic, detailed, and elaborate. Not all tattoos are offensive. If you adopt a policy in which you accept some and not others, you would have to allot time every month for tattoo inspections.

Because tattoos may be becoming more accepted in society, that does not mean the fire service has to accept them. We have to look at anything that might erode the public trust and weigh it against any claim of “freedom of expression” or “entitlement.” Departments probably will have to deal with this issue now or later.

Gary Seidel, chief,
Hillsboro (OR) Fire Department

Response: This is a nonissue for our department. Some members have gotten tattoos, and to date there have been no negative impacts from these tattoos. Our members are aware that they have a responsibility to contribute to the overall image of the department. A neat, clean, and well-groomed appearance contributes to building the pride essential to an effective fire department. Our members are aware that the chief prescribes the department’s grooming standards; our officers are accountable for the appearance of the members under their supervision.

Bobby Shelton, firefighter,
Cincinnati (OH) Fire Department

Response: Even though tattoos have gained wide acceptance and are no longer relegated just to “military types” or “bikers,” they have negative connotations for many of the people we serve. It doesn’t matter how well we do our job; if the public feels they cannot trust us or if our self-expression comes off as offensive, we are of no use to them. That being said, union officials and fire administrators need to communicate on this issue; it may even necessitate a case-by-case evaluation of each member and maybe some reasonable accommodations. Whether we like it or not, the citizens, the city, and the department have a right to dictate acceptable standards. If the policies squash our self-expression, we have to ask ourselves which is more important, self-expression or our livelihood.

Craig H. Shelley,
fire protection advisor,
Saudi Arabia

Response: Having started in the fire service nearly 42 years ago, I have seen a lot of change. Who would have thought 40 years ago that tattooing or body art would become so popular? In my previous and current departments, I have not run across this issue. Public servants have to maintain the image our citizens have of us. Personal grooming, as well as tattoos, should meet the public’s expectations and departmental standards. A lot of what we do in the fire service is public-relations oriented. I am not in favor of mandating a policy to cover all tattoos; I would be in favor of a policy that requests that certain types of tattoos—i.e., full arm coverings or full body tattoos—are covered. As adults we should be able to police ourselves and cover a tattoo that may reflect poorly on the fire department or fire service as a whole.

Joel Holbrook, lieutenant,
Washington Township (OH) Fire Department

Response: My department does not have a tattoo policy; we do have several members with numerous tattoos below the elbow. The administration is fully aware of the tattoos. I believe that tattoo art on the skin is protected by the U.S. Constitution. If the employer wishes to impose a no-tattoo policy, that would be fine so long as all current and potential employees are made aware of the policy before implementing it and a grandfather clause is instituted to cover current employees. I would question having to cover up the artwork with long-sleeved shirts in the summer as a health and safety issue. Tattoos have no bearing on the level of care a person will receive or the intelligence of the caregiver.

Mike Bucy, assistant chief,
Portage (IN) Fire Department

Response: The individual needs to police his own artwork. If he finds that it is having a negative effect on customers, he should cover up. The department should show restraint. Only suggestive or indecent tattoos (obtain an interpretation from various court rulings and your city attorney) should have to be covered. Piercings fall into this category as well. Banning pierced ears (or anything else) should be on the basis of safety. This would include all jewelry, including wedding rings.

Leslie S. Lippa,
assistant to the chief,
Greensboro (NC) Fire Department

Response: We do not have a written policy on tattoos for sworn or civilian personnel. There seems to be an unwritten rule, however, that you are expected to have them covered when at work. Many firefighters have tattoos, but they are not visible when they are in uniform.

Paul Morris, firefighter/paramedic,
Mentor on the Lake (OH) Fire Department

Response: Our department (paid, 140 members) has no restrictions on tattoos. We do, however, keep a close watch on any member who has visible tattoos to make sure they will not be seen as obscene or disrespectful by the public. We have an extensive code of ethics for managing our behavior; as of yet, no member has been asked to “cover” up. The department has the right to ask or order a member to cover an offensive tattoo. We try to portray a positive image and attitude at all times when in public. Employees who represent an expense to the taxpayer are always under the taxpayer’s watchful eye.

Steve A. Tinordi, platoon chief,
Red Deer (CA) Emergency Services

Response: Being a veteran officer, I have experienced the powerful impact public perception has on my organization. We maintain a conservative position on the subject of body art while on duty. If we were solely a fire/rescue department that did not also provide EMS services, we might be a little less conservative in our attitude of displaying tattoos. With the EMS duties, we are constantly in contact with the senior population, which has a less than complimentary view of tattoos. Our policies should reflect what our public perceives as professionalism. As the generations evolve, we will be rendering EMS care to a senior population who also displays tattoos and has embraced body art. Then, our policy will change to allow the display of tasteful tattoos while on duty.

Michael R. Kalina, battalion chief,
Lombard (IL) Fire Department

Response: The department has the right to require that all tattoos be covered. I don’t believe tattoos are socially acceptable by the majority of the people we serve. Tattoos certainly don’t interfere with a person’s ability to work, but they do cause the people we work for, the public, to look on us as less than professional.

Jennifer Hall, firefighter/
EMS coordinator, Fort Hood (TX) Fire and Emergency Services

Response: When it comes to tattoos, I am pleased to say I have a very progressive chief. As the department’s only female firefighter, and one who is in a position of authority, my chief hired me without knowing I had visible tattoos. When I decided to continue and get a “full sleeve,” I consulted him first to see if he would have any objections.

We have several male individuals who were also hired with tattoos. He does not require us to cover up with long-sleeved shirts, and there is no department policy. Although personal appearance plays a major role in how a department is perceived, personal conduct in public and on-scene is a high priority. I make a conscious choice when attending meetings with outside agencies to wear a long-sleeved shirt. I have worked with many officers of those outside agencies while on mass-casualty drills and mutual-aid responses, and my tattoos have never been an issue.

Chuck Atchley, chief,
Cleveland (TN) Fire Department

Response: We recently discussed this issue at our annual Tennessee Fire Chief’s meeting in Nashville. Although we departed with no clear consensus of departmental policy, it was obvious that our views were mostly the same. Most of us who participated did not particularly think that tattoos should be seen while on duty. However, we went from no policy at all to covering up a tattoo that can be seen while on duty. We discussed the term “offensive” and determined that to be a subjective word when applied to tattoos: What may not be offensive to one person may offend another.

Randy Hamel, captain,
Coquitlam (BC, Canada) Fire/Rescue

Response: Critical questions need to be asked by those making and disputing decisions: Why are some departments insistent on making members cover up? Is this requirement a knee-jerk reaction, or is it valid? Is such a requirement a violation of an individual’s right of expression? And where do we draw the line on expression?

Our department, to my knowledge, has no objection to tasteful tattoos (those that do not demean or degrade others). I do not take issue with the open display of body art, provided it does not demean or degrade another’s gender or culture.

Colleen J. Walz, deputy chief,
Pittsburgh (PA) Bureau of Fire

Response:I don’t think it makes sense to cover all tattoos. Tattoos offensive to coworkers or citizens should be covered, but that raises the question of who decides what is offensive. Leaders are forced to issue a blanket order to circumvent the potential liability of a lawsuit brought by an individual who believes that the rules are being applied unequally or arbitrarily.

Scott Birge, captain of training,
Golden Gate Fire Control & Rescue District, Naples, FL

Response: Our department has begun discussions on this subject. When I teach driver safety courses to driver/engineers, I remind them that when you yell at a driver who cuts you off or blow through a stop sign, the public does not see you, the person; you are seen as the name on the side of the big red billboard you’re driving. I support guidelines that require “body art” to be covered while on duty. We are professionals and should look the part.

Tom Nelson, lieutenant firefighter,
Hanford Fire Department,
Richland, WA

Response:Firefighters should not be punished for the way they have decided to express themselves. I see a number of overweight firefighters who would seem to represent a department in a far worse light than a tattooed firefighter. I have seen facial hair, earrings, fake fingernails, ponytailed hair, and so on that interfere with doing the job effectively and also affect safety on the fireground. There is no place for tasteless and demeaning tattoos in the workplace. Tasteful tattoos would not pose a health risk or jeopardize the job while on the fire scene or around the community. If departments are given the authority to mandate long-sleeved shirts for members with tattoos, where will the knee jerking stop? Will overweight firefighters be summoned to behind-the-scene jobs, facial hair need be shaved off, earrings not be allowed, fingernails not be allowed? Will those with birthmarks on arms or face be refused employment? Where will it stop? I have tattoos on both arms; they are nearly covered, and no firefighter has a problem with them, but management sure does.

Michael Bricault, firefighter,
Albuquerque (NM) Fire Department

Response: I have many tattoos on both arms. Our department has many members who are tattooed; yet, there is no tattoo-grooming policy. Should the department want to change the grooming standard to include a policy of covering tattoos, within reason, that is the employer’s prerogative. However, if the employee already has or was hired with the tattoos, it is the responsibility of the employer to provide the employee with a uniform that will comply with the new uniform standard as well as allow the employee every reasonable accommodation to become compliant.

It is also the employer’s prerogative to change the hiring standard to preclude hiring an individual who has tattoos in an area that shows when the employee is wearing the summer uniform—i.e., a T-shirt. In fact, many fire and police departments and the U.S. military have variations of this policy.

Many employers, even in the private sector, will not hire an individual with tattoos that cannot be covered in a normal, easy, and acceptable manner. A firefighter must comply with the employer’s requirements. A new candidate has to cut his hair and cannot dye it an unnatural color. He also must meet a uniform standard—the boss is already telling you how to shave and groom your hair and what to wear. Covering tattoos is just another grooming standard imposed by the employer to present the professional image.

Jim Washko,
deputy chief of operations,
Coeur d’ Alene (ID) Fire Department

Response: This issue came up four years ago, and we were proactive with our decision. We were fortunate that we did not have anyone with exposed tattoos at that time. We started asking ourselves some questions: What about providing care to the elderly? What is their perception of what a firefighter should be? What is an appropriate tattoo display, and what is not?

The next stop was our legal department, which determined that we cannot discern what is appropriate or not because it is different for everyone; we either let our firefighters display tattoos or we do not. We chose not to let them display tattoos, and our legal department wrote our uniform policy: “You are expected to project a positive image at all times as a firefighter for the City of Coeur d’ Alene, and you need to take that into consideration when contemplating tattooing your body. Any and all tattoos exposed to the public will not be allowed; they will be covered at all times while in a Coeur d’ Alene Fire Department uniform.” I feel we made the right choice.

Rocky Craig, captain,
Andover (KS) Fire Department

Response: I am a tattooed firefighter. I agree completely that you should keep tattoos covered when in the public eye. We are expected to look and act appropriately when in public. As a younger firefighter, I did not always agree with my captain’s commands. As I progressed in the fire service, I found out why the captain did what he did sometimes. Whether you agree or not doesn’t really matter. If the boss puts you in a dangerous position recklessly, you have a complaint. If you simply don’t like the directive given to you because it hurts your pride, you are a whiner. We should all strive to be healthy and professional looking at all times.

John Saylor, deputy fire marshal,
NC State University Fire Protection

Response: Personnel need to cover tattoos when they are on duty. Male and female personnel need to remember that although free expression is one of our constitutional rights, as public servants we need to maintain a professional appearance at all times. The U.S. Coast Guard has now required members to cover them up, so why can’t the fire service?

Bill Brown, lieutenant,
Wellington (OH) Community Fire District

Response: Whether we acknowledge it or not, we are in the customer service business. At this time, our personnel are not required to cover their ink; however, I believe it is coming and is warranted.

Since at least 80 percent of our calls are not [for fires or vehicle incidents], we need to be more aware of how we present ourselves to the public.

I see no issues with requirements to cover the art while working. A long-sleeved shirt is not going to push someone into hyperthermia. I have a tattoo; the difference is that I have it on my shoulder.

We all have the freedom to express ourselves, but employers also have the freedom not to hire someone if they feel that person’s presentation will be detrimental to the department.

Michael J. Lopina,
lieutenant/paramedic,
Lockport Twp. (IL) Fire Department

Response: Tattoos have been a part of the fire service for a long, long time. I can remember going to the firehouse as a young child to visit my father and seeing all of the ex-military (Vietnam, Korea, and World War II veterans) and nonmilitary guys with tattoos on forearms and biceps. That was a time when tattoos were still viewed as something a drunken sailor got on leave and not as a mainstream form of art as it is now. My view is that we as a profession have more exposure (no pun intended) to the public now than we did 30 years ago—CO service calls and EMS—where we are not covered in turnout gear all the time. There should be clear guidelines on what employees can and cannot have. This is a profession in which appearance matters and people may not look highly on tattoos that cover the entire arm or neck. If a member with such body art is hired, the department can do little unless it had a clear-cut policy in place prior to the hiring. Even then, rejecting a candidate solely on appearance would be treading on thin ice. A policy that spells out covering artwork on the extremities must be fair and nonbiased. Allowing some types of artwork and not others could also cause problems. More and more people are coming on the job with elaborate body art, so now is the time for departments to get their act together and “draw” up a policy.

Marc Pruiksma, assistant chief,
Manville (NJ) Fire Department

Response: I don’t think that it is right to ask employees to cover up tattoos. People should not be discriminated against for the art they choose to put on their bodies.

Robbie Cox, firefighter/EMT,
Washington (NC) Fire/Rescue/EMS

Response: If a person already has the tattoos, you cannot make him remove them. I don’t think the department leaders should discriminate against someone just because he has a few tattoos.

Brenda Osborne, executive secretary,
Emergency Preparedness Division,
Jacksonville (FL) Fire and Rescue Department

Response: Firefighters have to portray a higher standard to the public, because they are dealing with other people’s lives on a daily basis. Therefore, they should not be allowed to have all over their arms or other visible areas tattoos that could offend the public they are serving.

David Cain, deputy chief,
Boulder (CO) Fire Rescue

Response: Tattoos can be offensive to our citizens. They can be overdone and present an image that may be less than professional. The question of individual rights and agency policy are in conflict, legally and ethically. At the very least, the agency should set parameters concerning what is acceptable and what is not. Issues of size, content, and location should be considered. Tattoos evoke an emotional response from many. They should be covered while on duty.

Greg LeDoux, lieutenant,
Columbia River Fire & Rescue,
St. Helens, OR

Response: Where the rubber meets the road, fire departments have the right to determine standard grooming policy. Not all tattoos warrant being covered. Departments need to have a say in what style of body art can be shown and where it can be placed. Excessive facial tattoos and obscene and gang-related artwork need to be covered or not allowed. As an officer responsible for delivering quality service, the last thing I am worried about is my firefighters’ tattoos. I am looking for highly skilled, competent, aggressive, and loyal firefighters—not the style of their body art or where it is. I also need firefighters who can deliver service without scaring grandma or placing my crew in a dangerous situation.

People will argue discrimination; discrimination pertains to protected classes, not tattoos. At one point in our lives, we all make decisions that will affect our future. The decision to place a tattoo on your face or gang-related tattoos on your knuckles was your decision; if that affects your current or future employment opportunities, too bad.

Ray Plymel, sergeant,
Rome (GA) Fire Department

Response: Enough of our personal rights have been strangled by management and government leaders at all levels. I was in the Navy and had a friend that owned a tattoo shop; I could have had anything I wanted but chose not to. It was a personal choice and preference. I still do not have any tattoos and probably never will, but I don’t think it is up to anyone else to make that choice for me. It is only looked down on because somebody with clout says he doesn’t like it and it should not be allowed. It is a form of self-expression. By the way, with my military and civilian experience, as of September 18, 2008, I have served 34 years in the career fire service.

Glen M. Holder, captain/paramedic,
San Diego (CA) Fire Department

Response: Having served in the U.S. Navy on active duty and in reserve components for 25 years has given me adequate exposure to tattoos. The line between appropriate and inappropriate has been crossed in the past decade. Skin visible to the public while in your normal service uniform falls under your department’s dress code. The military services and the fire service were not prepared for this. Almost no policies were formally written, or, if they existed, they were enforced only in extreme circumstances. You always had that one member who went overboard with the ink, but it was usually only one, and a department could live with that.

If your department passed you through your first medical with the ink that you already had, then it approved the tattoos. If you got the tattoos after you were hired, you have physically changed your appearance permanently. If the tattoos can be seen in your service uniform, then the department can have a say about it. Your department can prohibit tattoos on your neck and face—period. It also can limit the total body surface area to a specified amount. A good policy will state that you cannot have more than “X” square palms of tattoos on your visible skin in service uniform. Your palm is the measuring device used by a medical doctor as a referee.

As a fire captain and Navy warrant officer, I would give a new member the following advice: Stay below your socks, above your knees, above your elbows; nothing on your hands, neck, and face. Full-sleeve tattoos and body suits have forced the issue of tattoos into enforceable policies. If you want to express your uniqueness and individuality by getting a tattoo, that is fine; just don’t be so rebellious that you lose your job over it. Get a tattoo that will make all of us proud of our fire service heritage. Don’t embarrass us with a tattoo that distracts from your ability to fight fire and save lives.

Rick Musall, chief,
Burns Township (MI)
Fire Department

Response: Covering tattoos should not be required; the person with the tattoo knows when it is important to cover the tattoos. Tattoos are part of that person’s roots. It’s no different than a person’s wearing a duty T-shirt from another fire department—it’s part of his roots, the path in life he has traveled and is proud of. Emergency services are all about documenting. I feel tattoos are each individual’s way of documenting his life’s path.

J.D. McElhenny, first lieutenant,
Lewes (DE) Fire Department

Response: Tattoos are a display of pride. The employer has hired the employee in his current condition for his skills and job performance. Telling an employee he cannot display his tattoo after you hired him—if it is not a safety issue—is punishing the group as a whole because of a personal belief. If you change the policies, then you have to pay for the necessary equipment for employees to conform to the new policies.

You can have guidelines that prohibit certain styles of tattoos, placement, and vulgarity after members are hired. You can put in the employment application that tattoos are not permitted on parts of the body exposed during work hours.

John Doering, chief,
Dunlap Community (IL) Fire Protection District

Response: Tattoos should be covered while on duty and dealing with the public. Part of the confidence factor patients have in our ability to take care of them is determined by our appearance. Although tattoos may not bother some of the general populace, for a large group, they are not perceived as a sign of professionalism.

Members of my department who have visible tattoos take any criticism of them quite personally. There is not a win-win solution in most cases. The service to the community must take precedence over their attachment to their body art.

James A. Gregg,
firefighter/paramedic,
Colleton County (SC) Fire Rescue

Response: Coming from someone with several years of experience in the fire and EMS service, and a tattooed person myself, I believe all tattoos should be covered while at work. Just because I find a tattoo acceptable doesn’t mean everyone else will.

Danny Kistner, assistant chief,
Garland (TX) Fire Department

Response: If you look around, body piercing and tattoos are commonplace among the youth today. This is the latest form of expression, and it is prevalent. I would suspect that if a study were conducted, a high percentage of potential and existing firefighters have tattoos. The decision on whether to cover a tattoo or not is highly subjective because defining what is offensive is subjective as well. Determining whether a tattoo is offensive or not depends on the one who sees the tattoo.

A tattoo can offend the public or other firefighters. A single contact with a lone firefighter is all it takes for a negative perception to take hold. There is no good solution here, but I believe fire departments should reserve the right to require that tattoos be covered on a case-by-case basis. Further, incoming firefighters not already tattooed should be counseled on what may be required should they choose to obtain a tattoo while employed.

Jerry E. Clark,
assistant fire marshal,
Fairfield (CA) Fire Department

Response: It’s a judgment call based on the content of the body art. The Air Force has a policy that all tattoos will be covered by the uniform when at all possible, but it has taken it a step further and require the removal of tattoos that can’t be covered. I don’t think the fire service should get that extreme. Common sense and good judgment should rule.

Paul T. Semerjian,
firefighter/paramedic,
Los Angeles City (CA) Fire Department

Response:The tattoos of today do not reflect the tattoos of days gone by. The tattoos of the early years were a badge of honor when serving our country in the military. Some of today’s multicolor graphics may be signs of expression, but they lack professionalism. The fire service needs to maintain its professionalism in serving the community.

Mick Hunsley, former chief,
Laporte County (IN) Fire Department

Response: That is a difficult question. If you cover some, you would have to cover them all. Being in the public eye, it is tough not to offend anyone.

William Meinert, firefighter/EMT,
Fort McPherson/Fort Gillem (GA) Fire Department

Response: Although the United States is becoming more accepting of body art and more people are participating (some averages I have seen published estimate that as many as one in four have a tattoo), we must remember that as firefighters we are always in the public eye. Therefore, we must always remember that we represent not only firefighters but also our department and, by extension, the municipality for which we work. A tattoo is a very personal expression. The department has the right to ask us to express ourselves on our personal time. We must also realize that others may become offended, judgmental, or simply distracted during times when we need their attention, such as patient care or building inspections. Regardless of how meaningless or harmless our personal expression is, the department has the right to ask us to present a professional appearance while interacting with the public.

Rich Bogart, lieutenant,
Broad Channel (NY) Volunteer Fire Department

Response: The department has every right to ask a member to cover up. You are to be seen in a professional light. I have quite extensive tattoos, but none can be seen if I have on pants and a short-sleeved shirt. I had them done in this manner so I would not have to worry about them interfering with my employment.

Lawrence Arfmann, lieutenant,
Lehigh (FL) Fire Department

Response: I have two tattoos myself, both fire related; they are covered with my shirt. I work with several people who have tattoos on their forearms and lower legs that are visible with our current uniforms. The fine line with the body art in this day and age is how the person next to you feels about it. This is especially true in my area of the country (southwest Florida). It seems that everything is based on someone’s feelings and perception of it. As long as the tattoos are not obviously vulgar, they should be allowed. We provide a public service and have to keep that in mind while getting these tattoos.

Bill Durkin, firefighter-EMT IV,
Murfreesboro (TN) Fire Department

Response: The display of tattoos in a public safety workplace is a delicate issue. Departments should consider that there has been an explosion of tattoo art in the United States in the past two generations. Younger members in particular grew up in a time where the old stigmas regarding tattoos no longer exist. As well, many of our older members, especially military veterans, bear their tattoos with great pride.

As long as the tattoo is not profane, public display should not be an issue. In fact, tattoos provide an easy way for responders to break down barriers with patients who may be in crisis when we meet them.

However, in more formal circumstances, especially funerals and when wearing Class A uniforms, it may be best to downplay our skin art. Our own good judgment should prevail. And that goes for when we are considering getting a tattoo. Ask yourself, “What will the public think of this tattoo?”

Agripino Figueroa, captain,
Camden (NJ) Fire Department

Response: Tattoos should be covered up. All on-duty career firefighters and officers should be required to cover up. Tattoos are seen in different perspectives in different areas of the country. In my department, we see them as fashion, the in thing, symbolic, and a way of honoring. Certain tattoos are offensive, and firefighters should keep these tattoos covered while on duty. We are serving the public and elected officials of this country. You do not see lawyers or CEOs walking up to their clients adorning a sleeve of tattoos on both arms. What you see is business attired, properly groomed individuals with an attitude to serve the customer.

Kenneth E. Morgan, battalion chief,
Clark County (NV) Fire Department

Response: Our department has no such requirement, although the local police department has had one for some time. I do not foresee any future requirement addressing the covering of tattoos within our organization as long as no safety issues arise and cultural and religious issues are not infringed. If implementing a coverage requirement for one individual, the department must be careful to ensure that the criteria for the requirement are well established and legitimate. Blanket orders may be easier to execute, but this will most likely create resentment among those affected. A department that requires the covering of tattoos will face mixed opinions as to the legitimacy for the requirement.

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