Whether or not firefighters can have tattoos is a common question asked by many firefighter candidates. I would know because I have several, and asked the same question when I first started.
So, can firefighters have tattoos? Yes, firefighters can have tattoos, but depending on your department rules you may have to keep them covered while on duty.
This question stems from a long-term issue with employment regulations where companies and forces looked down on those with ink.
You might expect the situation to be a lot different today. Tattoos are common among young generations and extend to all parts of the body.
There is greater acceptance of the artwork. But, that doesn’t mean that all fire departments will let you show off your body art while on duty.
While some are tolerant of body art, others are far more strict about firefighters covering up.
In this article, we’ll look at some of the different rules in place regarding tattoos on firefighters.
We will also look at some case studies within different departments.
Before that, let’s discuss why tattoos are such a contentious issue in the firefighting service.
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Why are tattoos on firefighters a potential problem?
There are three main reasons why fire departments may decide to enforce rules about tattoos. They are…
- Because the images may offend others due to religious connotations.
- Because the images may offend others due to adult content.
- Because of old-fashioned views on professionalism in public services.
Issues with offensive images in firefighter tattoos.
Many firefighters will have tattoos that have some deep personal meaning to them, perhaps related to their neighborhood or their religion.
These images could be an issue when helping civilians that may take offense to a particular piece of imagery.
Some people may not be happy to accept help from someone with lots of religious imagery over their arms and neck.
This could mean Christian, Pagan or other images linked to belief systems. There are misconceptions about some tattoos and symbols that they are directly linked to a cult.
This might not be well-received when dealing with someone that works with fire every day. Some firefighters will also have to be careful that their tattoos aren’t perceived as being gang-related, racist or homophobic.
Then there is the issue of adult content.
Firefighters need to have an image of a friendly, helpful authority figure that we can rely on in times of need.
Parents might not be so happy to be helped by someone with graphic images of a sexual nature or that have links to drug use or curse words.
That dumb tattoo that a young firefighter got when they were 18 could come back to haunt them.
Tattoos on firefighters are sometimes seen as unprofessional.
This last issue of professionalism is the one that could raise the most objections with firefighters.
Some older generations still feel as though tattoos are a negative attribute. The same often applies to piercings.
Chief’s and other city officials may argue that you wouldn’t see a professional CEO or manager with a sleeve of tattoos. Therefore, you shouldn’t expect to have one on show in the fire service.
Younger members of the force would contest this and say that we need to get rid of these stereotypes.
There is no reason why anyone can’t have lots of tattoos and progress in their career through skill and hard work.
There are also large numbers of millennials from all walks of life with works of art across their bodies. They feel that strict dress codes and employment restrictions discriminate against them for their personal choices.
Some firefighters may also choose to get tattoos that represent their precinct, their achievements and their family. They don’t want to have to hide them away in shame.
One such case was reported by the Montgomery Adviser in July of 2019. One officer added tattoos to his arms to depict moments in his career.
They are permanent badges of honor.
For seven years, he and others like him had to cover up their arms all year to hide their artwork. Their local Public Safety Director reversed the policy allowing them to wear short sleeves – no matter what was on their arms.
So, can tattoos be visible while on duty?
The rules on firefighters with tattoos can vary depending on the department and location.
Some departments are far more strict than others. Some have relaxed regulations to accommodate dedicated personnel while others remain tough on the rules.
Trainee firefighters shouldn’t face any discrimination about whether or not they will get a job because they have tattoos.
However, they may have to cover them up if they don’t adhere to the rules of the department. Examples of this include…
- Covering up tattoo sleeves with long-sleeved shirts while on duty.
- Covering up leg tattoos at all times while on duty
- Placing bandages and other coverings on neck and wrist tattoos.
Some departments may have a zero tolerance policy when it comes to tattoos on the face or hands.
These areas are harder to cover up the whole time and there is a different public perception about body art in these areas.
These rules are a compromise that works for most firefighters but not all.
This approach seems to work for many people. The fire department can maintain the level of professionalism it strives for and tattooed individuals can still work in the force.
In most stations, it seems as though you can have any tattoo you want as long as it is covered while on duty. Individuals simply need to ensure that they wear those long sleeves and bandages at all times.
However, some still object to this approach.
They point out that they are not able to roll up their sleeves on a hot day because civilians may then seen their tattoos. Some still feel as though they are unjustly punished for lifestyle choices that don’t affect their work.
In fact, a close friend of mine was, unbeknownst to him, barred from working at a particular department because of his tattoos.
There are some that question firefighter tattoo policies and First Amendment protection.
The First Amendment states that the government cannot create laws that prohibit the free exercise of speech and religion.
Some tattooed firefighters would argue that their tattoos are symbols of this freedom of personal expression. Therefore, they shouldn’t have to cover up on duty.
Firefighters may look to a case in 2015 where officers with the Chicago Police Department aimed to exercise their rights to tattoos under the First Amendment.
The department had changed its policy in June 2015 so that officers would cover all tattoos.
The court ruled that the City’s interests in maintaining a professional force outweighed the officers interests in personal expression through tattoos.
The most well-known incident that upset firefighters was the policy change in LA in 2008.
The Los Angeles Fire Department changed its rules on tattoos on May 1, 2008 and other precincts followed suit.
The department decided that no firefighter should expose tattoos in public. This meant those natural bandages on the neck and long sleeves at all times.
This decision was a major shift as firefighters had been able to wear short sleeves and show off their ink previously.
The LAFD chief claimed that it was all about public perception and professionalism. There were concerns about the quantity and placement of some tattoos, including some numbers that might be seen as gang-related.
Firefighters were angry that their professionalism was suddenly in question after years of loyal service.
Some departments have made changes to their policies.
That being said, some departments have altered their policies to become more accepting of tattoos.
Another recent example from July of 2019 in California.
Here they implemented a trial measure for the summer where firefighter could wear short sleeves in hot weather.
The fire chief at the Atascadero station agreed that tattoos were more common and they needed to reconsider their rules.
Issues over health and safety in hot summers overruled concerns about the content of the tattoos.
Although this was a temporary measure, there are hopes that it will lead to more changes in the future.
Will firefighters be allowed to display tattoos more openly in the future?
The rise in popularity and diversity of body art means that stations need to relax their rules to employ the best crews.
Tattoos are just too common with Millennials and Gen-Z applicants.
Recent changes in some fire stations suggest that the tide may be turning here.
The rules of the LA station do seem harsh and outdated 11 years later.
Eventually, we will probably see more cases where officials relax the rules in individual stations.
Offensive art may still need to be covered by inoffensive neck and sleeve tattoos may be better tolerated.
Yet, there will still be those that prefer to see no tattoos at all on anyone in a “professional” line of work.
Until then, anyone looking to start become a firefighter is urged to look into the rules of their local stations.
Understand what is acceptable and what is banned.
Do your best to adhere to these rules to avoid any issues.
Once part of a crew, you could petition with others in your situation to relax the rules in a compromising manner.
Also, I would like to point out, it’s important to keep your tattoos covered completely during the firefighter interview. At this stage you probably won’t know the departments rules and regulations and it’s best to play it safe.