City Desk

Even More on Firefighters’ Beards

The crusty case of beards and D.C. Fire & EMS—religious expression or safety hazard?—is indeed moving forward and will be argued before a panel of three judges in the U.S. Court of Appeals next month, on Oct. 7, according to Art Spitzer, legal director for the local ACLU. Six active-duty firefighters and paramedics, including Steven Chasin who recently talked to J-post and was featured on Drudge, have joined an earlier suit filed in 2001. That suit included Tarick Ali, a Muslim firefighter, who died of cancer in 2006. His estate is still represented in the suit, says Spitzer.

D.C. Fire Spokesman Alan Etter says whatever finally happens: "We will abide by what the court says, but we maintain, adamantly, that this is a safety issue." Facial hair longer than one-quarter inch prevents what the fire department considers an adequate seal on masks designed to keep oxygen in and toxic gas out. The argument that there's no evidence a firefighter has been killed because of his beard isn't good enough, Etter says. "I don't think we want to wait and be the first at a funeral and say, well, we're sorry, we had a chance to address this and we didn't."

Etter also says the reason this is an issue that keeps flaring up in D.C. is because it's an "argument of lexicon, of nomenclature." In other words: D.C.'s not what you would call a state. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) established standards that, he says, all states have adopted. These include the beard thing. In D.C., he says, "there's a loophole." In Pennsylvania, for instance, there's not. A Muslim firefighter in Philadelphia argued to keep his beard; he was allowed to keep his job, as long as it didn't involve actually fighting fires. So, in other words, he lost.

Spitzer says, "We don't buy it." Tests have shown that "the little bit of leakage" that occurs because someone has a beard "is not different than leakage that would occur for other reasons," he says. And further, if the department is worried about how quickly and efficiently firefighters use oxygen, consider "the 275-pound" firefighter, says Spitzer. "Instead, the fire department chooses to focus on beards."

(photo by Poolie)

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