The fire service can be a strict, paramilitary employer. Mostly, they’re not concerned with the way you dress beyond a requirement to remain professional. So, are you allowed to have tattoos as a firefighter?
Firefighters are allowed, by most fire departments, to have tattoos. However, many departments require that they be covered and out of sight while on duty. Not all employers have as strict a tattoo policy, but many do. This may change in the future.
This isn’t a moral judgment on those who have tattoos and there are some fairly sensible reasons for asking you to keep your ink under wraps while at work.
Let’s take a look at the whole picture concerning tattoos on firefighters. Take a look.
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Can Firefighters Have Tattoos?
There’s no doubt that from a societal standpoint, having tattoos is not the big deal that it was, say, 50 years ago.
However, you’re right to be concerned about this question if you’re thinking about joining the service and you want to have tattoos because, like most branches of public service, the fire service remains a touch conservative in its outlook.
When you went to school, if you discussed having tattoos with your teachers, they probably said something like; “if you must have tattoos, make sure that you can keep them covered up with clothes, so they don’t interfere with your working life.”
It turns out that this was pretty good advice because it’s fair to say that the majority of fire services in the United States today aren’t going to stop you from working if you have tattoos, but they will expect you to cover them up.
If you think about it, this makes sense. When you are in uniform, your job is to represent the fire service and not yourself. Tattoos are an expression of who you are, not what the service is.
Why Might Tattoos Be A Bad Idea For A Firefighter?
There are three potential problems that can arise from someone seeing a firefighter’s tattoos and they all boil down to some form of offense.
- The tattoos may offend some people’s religious or political sensibilities
- The content of your tattoos might offend others due to their R rated nature
- The tattoos may clash with some people’s view of how to be professional in public service
Most of the time, we’d argue that people’s offense when it comes to tattoos is down to them misconstruing the meaning of a personal statement.
And in your free time, you’d be absolutely right to say, “so what? That’s their problem, not mine.”
But when you’re turning out for the fire service, it’s not “their problem”, it’s the “service’s problem”.
And the fire service’s job is to save lives, not to argue with people over the nature of someone’s tattoos.
Thus, fire services tend to require that individuals cover their tattoos when on the job so that the tattoos don’t interfere with the execution of the job.
Some tattoos are also political symbols and for obvious reasons, the fire service cannot be seen to be political, it would cause the public to question whether the service might ignore people of other political persuasions or provide them a lesser service.
And, of course, curse words and sexual imagery are not likely to go down well with certain sections of the public either.
Thus, it makes sense for a fire department to ask their firefighters to cover up their ink when they’re on duty.
This is, obviously, better than a blanket ban on tattoos, though we have to wonder whether it would be possible to recruit enough firefighters if they opted to ban all tattoos, instead.
Can Tattoos Cause Problems For A Firefighter?
In most branches of the fire service, your tattoos are unlikely to cause any issues in terms of being hired or carrying out your duties as long as they are covered up.
However, it is unlikely that someone with facial tattoos or tattoos on their hands would be hired as a firefighter, and if they were to get these tattoos while working for the service?
It is likely that they would run into disciplinary problems, and they could be asked to leave the service or be transferred into a job away from the public eye.
This might sound unfair or old-fashioned and it might even be unfair or old-fashioned, but the fire service is a paramilitary organization and like all such organizations it has rules, if you don’t follow them, you’re going to find that service is bigger than you.
This does seem to be changing though.
The department I work for recently updated its tattoo policy to better fit with the times. We were previously not allowed to have any tattoos showing, but now we can have non-offensive tattoos, as long as they are not on the neck, face, head, or hands.
This is partially to not disqualify potentially great firefighter candidates from working for us, just due to a tattoo.
The Expectation That You Will Cover Up Tattoos When Working
The exact expectations that are set on each firefighter will depend on the fire service that you work for.
There is no national ban on tattoos or a national policy on how you should cover up your tattoos either, it’s down to local policy,
That means if you’re thinking about getting tattoos and joining the fire service, you might want to drop by your local fire station and find out what the exact rules are before you get your ink.
There is a lot of variation in tattoo policies between fire departments too, there are a few departments that have simply gone “modern” and no longer require cover-up (but they are only a few).
There are others that insist that whenever you’re on duty, you cover-up. Yes, even during breaks and relaxation time.
The most common rules will include:
- Leg tattoos must be covered when on duty by your trousers
- Arm tattoos should be covered with long sleeves when working
- Any tattoos that remain to be seen should be covered by a bandage or a plaster during working hours
It’s worth noting though that many departments have zero tolerance for tattoos that can’t be covered by shirts and trousers.
As an example, here is a section of the tattoo and grooming policy for Portland Fire and Rescue, in Oregon:
“Tattoos, body art, or brands are prohibited if they are obscene, sexually explicit, denote a violent or exclusionary group, or advocate or symbolize discrimination against any sex, gender, race, religion, ethnicity, or nationality.
Neck and face tattoos are not allowed”
And here is another from Austin Fire Department in Texas:
“All tattoos must be coverable by an AFD uniform. The only exceptions would be tattooed wedding or commitment bands. All tattoos displaying inappropriate content must be covered while on duty. If a question arises as to the appropriateness of a member’s tattoo, the appropriate Assistant Chief or the Fire Chief shall make the final determination.”Austin Fire Department
As you can see, the policy will vary based on the organization.
Do They Have The Right To Tell Me To Cover My Tattoos?
There are many who argue that the service should not have the right to tell you to cover up your tattoos, they’d even say that it might be an infringement of your first amendment rights.
They’d note that the amendment guarantees you freedom of expression and that the department asking you to cover up is thus, a violation of your right.
Here is a court ruling from 2019 on this issue where the upheld the policy requiring firefighters to cover their tattoos.
Is The Fire Service Likely To Change Its Mind About Tattoos In Future?
Possibly. There’s no doubt that in some areas of the country, the fire service has been relaxing its policy on tattoos for a long time now.
Certainly, the way tattoos are perceived in society is completely different from when these policies were originally conceived.
However, as we’ve already stressed – these policies are generated at a local level, not a national one. What’s right for one fire department might not be right for the department down the road.
It’s not that the fire service is resistant to change, it’s that change can take some time to come.
What About Piercings? Can You Have Piercings As A Firefighter?
Yes, you can have piercings but, you generally can’t wear them on duty.
Piercings can get caught against things and facial piercings can interfere with the seal on a breathing apparatus (SCBA).
This isn’t a big deal though, as your piercings can easily be removed during a shift and then replaced afterward without risking them healing up.
It’s important to note that because the rules surrounding piercings are directly related to health and safety, they’re not going to change any time soon unless there’s some drastic development in safety equipment.
This is in contrast to tattoo rules which are not based on health and safety concerns and may thus be relaxed as common culture becomes more accepting of tattoos.
The ban on wearing piercings while working is not one of aesthetics or concerns for the public’s feelings, it’s to ensure that you don’t get hurt while you work and don’t cause others to get hurt either.
Also read: Can Firefighters Have Piercings?