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New LAFD tattoo policy sparks conflict

June 23, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
A "cover-up" in the L.A. City Fire Department is angering some employees. The department now says all firefighters who have tattoos have to keep them covered, day and night. Firefighters say the tattoo policy makes no sense. The department's top brass says the order to cover up tattoos is a matter of image and professionalism. But the firefighter union says there was no need for a policy before, so why now?The Fire Department says this new policy is no different from any other personal grooming policy that they have in place. They say it's about maintaining a uniform appearance, and keeping a professional image. But the United Firefighters of L.A. City says if a tattoo is not sexual, racial, or offensive, there's no reason to cover it up.

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A routine gear inspection at L.A. city fire stations now includes a once-over of the firefighters themselves, not for the kind of uniform infraction you might think of, but for tattoos.

As of May 1, firefighters with exposed tattoos have to cover up, even if it means wearing long-sleeve shirts, turtlenecks, and bandages on sweltering hot days.

"As long as they're on fire department property, they need to be covered up," said LAFD Battalion Chief Ronnie Villanueva. "Most of them wear long sleeves, but there are times when we have some members that they have it on their hands or they have it on their neck -- they're going to find measures to be able to cover them up, either with gloves for the hands, or bandages on top, and the same for the neck."

"It's a bad policy," said Steve Tufts, president of United Firefighters of L.A. City. "If they wanted to have some kind of policy, they could just have them wear a jacket or a shirt."

Tufts says the new policy hurts morale and discriminates against the 200 firefighters in the department with tattoos.

"It's just art," said Tufts. "I mean, it's not a safety hazard, no one's ever complained. People want to see us -- when they call 911, they just want help. And that's what we do. It hasn't been an issue for 30-something years, I don't know why it's an issue now."

Fire Department officials say the policy had been in the works for some time, and that it was put in to effect to curb the growing trend.

"It was a standard that we felt that it was time to take control of," said Battalion Chief Villanueva. "Just like we wear uniforms on a daily basis, we have to shave, we have grooming standards. This was just another one of those policies."

Like all other department policies, firefighters are complying, but union leaders say their "tatted-out" members feel singled out.

Steve Tufts predicts that if the policy isn't changed, the city will face another expensive lawsuit. "It seems like a waste of time and money to go through this," said Tufts. "We should just work out a deal and be done with it."

L.A. City Fire Dept. officials said the department is not the first to adopt a policy like this: Long Beach City Fire Dept. and Burbank City Fire Dept. both have tattoo policies in place, as does the L.A. Police Dept. However, the L.A. County Fire Dept. does not have a tattoo policy on its books.

 

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