Several people prefer having facial hair to staying clean shaven every day. However, some men applying for the fire service may wonder whether they’re allowed to have facial hair or a full grown beard.
Sadly, the general rule of thumb is firefighters aren’t allowed to have beards. If you’re a member of the fire service, particularly while you’re on duty, you’ll be expected to stay clean shaven. There are several reasons for this.
However, there have been exceptions throughout history, and even a few legal battles.
Beards can be different styles and lengths. Typically, the majority of professions will let you have a beard, providing that it’s hygienic and properly groomed. However, there are some careers that are stricter in terms of whether you can sport facial hair or not.
Those who are passionate about becoming a firefighter may be worried as to whether they will need to shave every day. So what are the exact rules in terms of firefighters having beards?
Today we’re going to take a look at the policies which fire services have in place. We’re also going to look at why these policies are in place, as well as historical cases where some men have fought for their right to grow a beard.
Are firefighters allowed to have beards?
In order to know a more in depth answer to this question, we will need to take a look at all the different regulations that different departments have in place. The rules will typically vary between different states as well as the different attitudes of your local department.
Most fire departments will keep a really strict policy for their firefighters to stay clean shaven when they’re on duty. You won’t have to worry if you’re off duty - it will be fine to allow a beard to grow then. However, you will need to shave it off before you’re back in the station.
A few other departments tend to be a bit more relaxed with their rules. These departments let you have shorter beards that are well groomed, within reason.
You may be surprised to learn that there are even some fire departments which are even more laid back when it comes to facial hair. They don’t have any strong opinions on whether their firefighters grow beards or not, as long as they’re able to do their jobs properly.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that how these rules are enforced will also depend on the firefighter’s specific role. Those who are involved when dealing with major incidents or directly tackle fires are most likely to be told to stay clean shaven.
However, firefighters that tend to work in the local community or around departments other than the frontline are more likely to get away with a bit of beard growth.
Several office personnel are also more likely to be sporting facial hair of some kind because they won’t be fighting as many fires as those caught up in the danger.
Why aren’t beards allowed in the fire service?
So why aren’t beards typically allowed in the fire service? This is all down to health and safety.
Staying clean shaven is one of the first rules taught in a fire academy. This rule says that people who wear masks need to be clean shaven.
This same policy also asks that if you can’t stay clean shaven regularly because of a medical condition, you will need to tell your supervisor. They should be able to help you find a different shaving technique that works for you.
So if you’re just starting out in the fire service, you won’t be able to escape having to shave off your beard.
This policy may seem a little strict. Especially if you prefer to grow facial hair or a beard. However, it has been put in place for your safety.
This is because firefighters need to wear an SCBA mask. This works to protect you from any harmful substances or smoke that can linger in the air during a fire.
The mask works by forming a seal around your face, which prevents any air from getting in. So you’ll be able to breathe a clean supply of oxygen without having to worry about inhaling any noxious fumes.
A beard, however, can complicate this whole process. Any facial hair that gets in the way of the SCBA mask will actually limit the effectiveness of the seal. If there’s a beard in the way, the mask can’t get as close to your face as it needs to in order to protect you properly.
You’d be surprised how many dust particles will be able to get through this gap, no matter how small it is. These particles will then be inhaled, which can get into a firefighter’s airways and impair them.
Any soot or dust that gets into beards can also increase the likelihood of developing certain cancers as well as other nasty respiratory diseases.
In fact, cancer rates are already pretty high among firefighters purely because of the layers of debris that end up on their gear. Things such as asbestos, plastic particles, and petroleum fumes are the main culprits.
So if these nasty particles and fumes were able to sit in your beard, it would make it way too easy to inhale them into your lungs once you’ve taken your SCBA mask off.
So if your fire department does let you keep a beard, you will need to carefully wash this after each incident to keep yourself protected.
If you’re too lax about your beard hygiene, these carcinogens and dangerous particles won’t only harm yourself. They can also contaminate the station throughout the day and over the course of your shift.
So to prevent yourself from accidentally harming yourself and your colleagues, this is why most firefighters aren’t typically allowed to keep a beard in place when they’re on shift.
Why are firefighters annoyed about this policy?
Considering that not every fire department is strict with this policy, it can make those who do have to work in stricter environments very annoyed. There are of course great health benefits to staying clean shaven.
However, some firefighters of course want to exercise their right to grow their own facial hair.
Certain stations will allow their firefighters to grow a small amount of facial hair if it won’t impact on the seal of the SCBA masks. For those who don’t want to stay completely clean shaven, this is a great compromise.
However, there is another reason that some firefighters may want to keep their beards. Apart from aesthetic reasons, some firefighters don’t like to shave their beards because of religious reasons.
So in this case, demanding a firefighter shave off their beard is actually going against their rights to practice their faith as they wish to.
It’s worth noting that the main objection that comes between allowing firefighters to grow beards or not is mostly down to medical conditions, not because the career objects to any religion.
Because of this, some firefighters throughout history have even taken their departments to court so as to protect their right to practice their faith by maintaining a beard.
One of the most notable cases for this was between 2001 and 2007 with the fire department in Washington, D.C. Some of the Muslim firefighters took the department to court over their grooming policy during 2001.
During 2005, this same fire department changed its policy so as to create a safety rule against firefighters having beards. They argued pretty much as we’ve outlined above - that beards get in the way of the mask and your face, so that the mask can’t create a proper seal.
However, during 2007, the court eventually ruled in favor of the Muslim firefighters because of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The court felt that there was a lack of evidence over these safety claims, so the fire department lost the case.
But in 2005, a court in Philadelphia actually ruled in favor of the local fire department in a similar case between them and a Muslim claimant.
They ruled that the Muslim firefighter still wasn’t allowed to maintain a beard while he was on duty. So if he wanted to carry on working as a firefighter, he would need to go against his religious beliefs.
Unsurprisingly, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has been fighting against the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) on this issue for several decades.
The CAIR argues that no Muslim should be forced to go against their religion because of worries about safety.
Way back in 1998, the OSHA did state that if there was a situation where a mask couldn’t be worn, there were other alternatives for respiratory protection such as helmets and loose hoods. So arguably these measures are already in place if a firefighter did have a beard.
In a more recent case in 2016, some firefighters in Jacksonville, Florida, were given desk duty or sent home because they had beards. The officials argued that these beards were a safety risk, so that the firefighters had to shave them off before they could go back to their normal duties.
Before this, around 30 firefighters had actually been made exempt from this rule as they were prone to painful razor bumps. However, the rules in Florida mean that firefighters who use respirators need to be clean shaven in order to get a sufficient seal.
The firefighters who suffered from razor bumps argued that this mask actually rubbed against them, which then caused more issues such as bleeding over the masks.
This not only makes the masks unhygienic, but it can also cause the razor bumps to become infected. This issue is much worse for black firefighters. There are some fears that actions such as these also show a much deeper level of inequality in America.
Firefighters and facial hair through history
The keen eyed among you will have noticed that we’ve mostly discussed the issue with rules on beard hair. It may surprise you to learn that the fire departments that expect their staff to remain completely clean shaven are much less common.
Due to the shape of the SCBA mask, sideburns and mustaches are very rarely an issue.
So when firefighters haven’t been allowed to grow a beard, they can grow these instead. Interestingly, mustaches were a tradition for some firefighters. It was seen as a sign of masculinity in the challenging profession.
A story in the New York Times back in 1986 also discussed this trend. Around 40% of firefighters were thought to sport mustaches. The story also discussed beards not being allowed in fire departments because of the new oxygen masks which had been introduced.
These newer oxygen masks did also restrict the type of mustache that firefighters were able to have. It couldn’t be unkempt or too long so that the mask was restricted from working properly.
At the time, a firefighter’s mustache wasn’t allowed to grow below their upper lip or beyond the corners of their mouths.
Another argument is that this was because of the image of professionalism. Some firefighters were asked to cover up their tattoos because these made them look “unprofessional”. Many have argued that tattoos do not impact a person’s ability to do their job.
This same rule is also true for facial hair. There are some who suggest that this prejudice against beards and facial hair has more to do with not wanting people to look a certain way.
So now we know that there isn’t actually a straightforward answer as to whether you can or can’t have a beard to work in the fire department. It will depend on your role in the fire department.
Those on the frontline will have to stay clean shaven for safety reasons, whereas those in office or community roles are likely to get away with a beard as long as it’s well groomed. Generally, it will vary between different departments.
You will be better off checking what the policies are between local fire departments if you’re determined to be a firefighter and don’t want to get rid of your facial hair.