Firefighters Call Tattoo Policy ‘Old Fashioned’

IOWA &#8211 To some who work under them, rules for firefighters and police are behind the times.

Davenport firefighter Mike Rose has a partial “sleeve,” which is a tattoo that covers part of his arm.

He got the ink about six years ago when he joined the Army. In the military, he said, tattoos are commonplace. The military culture has long favored body art, especially related to service. But the trend today has the civilian culture more closely aligned with the veteran and active-duty culture, he said.

“They (Davenport Fire Department) just hired three military guys who have been overseas,” Rose said. “Some of those guys are going to have tattoos. Why risk ruling them out of a job?”

While the department’s tattoo policy does not prohibit the hiring of firefighters with ink, it does add dress-code criteria, such as keeping the artwork covered.

“The policy states no tattoo should be visible below the elbow,” Davenport Fire Chief Lynn Washburn said Tuesday. “I’ve had no complaints come to my office regarding the policy.”

The rules that were adopted in October are less strict than the policy that came before, which prohibited tattoos larger than 4 inches square and required supervisory approval for all ink. The chief said fire officials consulted military tattoo policy before adopting new rules.

“We recognize that there’s change, and individuals make different choices,” Washburn said. “We didn’t want to restrict individual choice while maintaining proper appearance.”

At least one firefighter nearly paid a price for his individual choice, however.

Ryan Hanghian, who is also first vice president of the Davenport firefighters’ union, used a flesh-colored, nylon medical-type wrap to cover his arm ink while on duty. The tattoo is a tribute to the fallen firefighters from 9/11. When he received a 24-hour discipline (the equivalent of three days off without pay) for adding the “unauthorized item” to his uniform, the matter was appealed to the Davenport Civil Service Commission.

Hanghian won the case, and the commission reversed the discipline. To remain compliant with departmental policy, he now must wear one of three approved long-sleeve shirts while on duty, regardless of weather conditions.

Washburn pointed out that U.S. military tattoo policies also have undergone recent changes. New rules include limits on the number of tattoos that are acceptable, declaring arm or leg “sleeves” as unauthorized. Commanders are now required to conduct annual inspections of enlisted soldiers’ body art, checking for violations.

Firefighters are not the only city workers bound by body-art policies.

The same goes for the Davenport, Bettendorf and Moline Police departments: Cops can have tattoos, but they should not show. All three departments ban face and neck tattoos.

Maj. Don Schaefer said he knows of no one in the Davenport Police Department who requires special accommodations, such as year-round long sleeves, to comply with the ban on visible ink.

An employee dress code is among hundreds of standards the department has to meet, he said, and Davenport’s specifically addresses tattoos. All of them are to be “inconspicuously placed” to accommodate “a professional appearance.”

Schaefer acknowledged the subjectivity of “inconspicuous” and “professional,” but he said the dress code is specific enough to avoid issues with interpretation.

“The Department’s philosophy is to provide professional service to everyone and reflect shared values with the community,” he said in an email. “Times change, people change and, as time passes, different things become acceptable. But at this time, not everyone in the community has the same shared values. We embrace the value of respecting everyone in the community and until everyone in the community shares the same values of tattoos, tattoos will be inconspicuous.”

Firefighter Rose also noted that “times change and people change,” but he said the changes are not taken fully into consideration and the too-strict policies create a culture clash.

“It’s not taboo to have a tattoo,” he said. “The way I feel about it: I do my job, and I do it professionally. If you see me run up to your burning house, are you going to say, ‘No, thanks?’ ”

Jason Roth, the president of the Davenport Association of Professional Firefighters, said tattoos are falling increasingly into favor with newcomers to the fire service.

At least one of the three recently hired military veterans at the Davenport Fire Department has “a significant amount of body art,” he said, adding that the new hire has been told he must wear long sleeves to hide it.

But Rose said he has not been instructed on how the October policy will affect him.

“No one from our front office has told me what I have to do,” he said of his sleeve. “You can have a tattoo on your ring finger or a 1-inch tattoo at the wrist. That policy is fairly new. The sleeve issue has never come up to me. I’ve never been disciplined for mine.”

Roth said the tattoo culture is likely to continue to force policy changes.

“I think a lot of my young firefighters would like to be able to express themselves with body art,” he said. “It’s different than it was when I started 30 years ago. That’s especially the case with so many veterans. A lot of their body art has great personal significance, like the names of soldiers from their units who died.”

He also noted that tattoos are common in an increasing number of places, from the basketball court to the country club.

“It’s a changing culture, and it seems like we’re behind a little bit,” Roth said. “There is no relationship between ink and being a good firefighter.”

From The Quad-City Times