The fire service, generally speaking, doesn’t exist to comment on issues of fashion, but one thorny issue has arisen in recent years and that is one of “is it ok to have a beard as a firefighter?”
While there’s no doubt that for some men a beard is almost a coming-of-age issue in our society and many jobs have adapted to accommodate professional-looking young men sporting facial hair, the fire service has not.
Firefighters are almost never allowed to have beards while on duty, as this can prevent their air supplying masks (SCBAs) from properly sealing on their faces. This is a direct safety issue according to OSHA and there seems to be little room for exceptions.
This doesn’t mean, however, that all facial hair is banned and the reason for the ban on beards is not the whim of capricious fire service leaders but safety. Let’s take a look at this issue in detail.
Your # 1 priority is keeping your family safe. As a firefighter, I recommend everyone has updated smoke detectors that don’t require battery changes, like these ones from Kidde, a fire extinguisher, like this one from Amerex, and a fire escape ladder if you have bedrooms above the first floor, I recommend this one from Hausse.
Can Firefighters Have Beards?
The actual rules and regulations governing facial hair will be set locally and there is no countrywide ban on any kind of facial hair or beards.
The majority of fire services, however, will expect their firefighters to remain clean-shaven when on duty but will have no regulations regarding facial hair when off duty.
There are some fire services out there that may allow a small neatly kept beard and even one or two that might allow those in certain positions to grow a beard.
The basic rule of thumb regarding facial hair is that if you’re going to be out fighting fires, you can’t have a beard. So, if you’re in the line or on combat duty, expect to be shaving regularly.
If, on the other hand, you work for a fire department in another role or are part of the office team, you may be allowed to grow a beard as you won’t be fighting any fires.
Also read: Can Firefighters Have Tattoos? It Depends…
Why Can’t Firefighters Have Beards?
The firefighter will learn early in their career, at fire academy in fact, that they must be clean shaven when they put on a mask.
Any firefighter that refuses at this point will fail the fire academy and if they believe they have a medical condition that prevents them from being clean-shaven? They will need to see if it can be accommodated by their supervisor.
In fact, they won’t be. They’ll be given a list of alternative shaving techniques. There’s no negotiating on this – you’re going to be clean-shaven in a mask.
This is because it’s a health and safety problem. All firefighters, when fighting fires, are going to need to put on an SCBA mask at times and this prevents you from becoming overwhelmed by smoke or other particles in the air.
A Seal Between You And Your Firefighting Mask
In order to do this, the mask needs to form a seal between your skin and the outside of the mask, this allows you to draw clean oxygen from the tank on the back without worrying about it catching fire and it prevents contaminated air from coming in.
If you have a beard? The mask cannot seal properly to your face and you’re going to end up with gaps around the seal.
Over time, this is going to mean you’re going to get dust particles inside the mask, and there, you’re going to inhale them.
The Risk To You When The Seal Fails
Now, this isn’t likely to see you drop down dead on the job but over a longer period of time, it would dramatically increase the risks of you developing respiratory conditions, possibly severe and chronic ones, and respiratory cancers.
This isn’t great news in a profession that is already prone to cancer risks. The contaminants that just build up on the outside of your firefighting gear such as soot, asbestos, etc. can seriously increase your long-term risks.
Also, if the seal is broken, and your beard sits between you and the outside world, well, your beard is going to get full of contaminated particles.
That would mean you’d need to decontaminate your beard after every single fire you fought. If you didn’t? Then you’d be shedding those particles around your fellow firefighters and increasing their risks of getting sick.
So, OSHA has mandated that if you wear a mask, you don’t wear a beard. It’s almost as simple as that.
Are There Any Exceptions To This Rule?
It’s fair to say that some firemen aren’t happy about this rule and feel that this tramples on their “right” to facial hair.
Sadly, for those firemen, there is no such right established under law or the constitution of the United States and as such, if they want to exercise this imaginary right, they’ll need to find another job that doesn’t involve wearing a mask.
Or they could find a fire station with a more relaxed attitude that allows a trivial amount of well-groomed facial hair that still allows for a solid seal around the mask.
However, there are some people who may have a better claim to a “right” to wear facial hair: those with religious obligations to wear facial hair and those with medical conditions that make shaving problematic.
The one possible exception is wildland firefighters. They are sometimes allowed to have beards as these types of firefighters generally don’t wear the same type of airway protection (SCBAs) as they are not usually practical for this type of firefighting.
Religion And Facial Hair In The Fire Service
This is an area fraught with complexity and one which is uncertain from any legal angle too. There is some leeway in the rules regarding facial hair for medical exemptions but not much, and there is none at all for those with religious beliefs.
However, there have been instances of religious groups taking their local fire service to the court regarding the prohibition on beards.
These cases haven’t created any kind of precedent and while the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has regularly fought OSHA in court over this issue, they’ve lost as often as they have won.
CAIR says no Muslim ought to shave a beard due to health and safety regulations, OSHA does have a provision for alternative safety gear (loose hoods and helmets) and thus says if a fire service wants to recognize a religious exemption it could.
In general, though, the current standard practice is not to recognize religious objections and to require a firefighter to be clean-shaven.
Some argue that this could be seen as discriminatory against the African-American community but so far, this argument has held no sway either.
Medical Exemptions And Facial Hair In The Fire Service
Courts seem to be coming around to the idea of people who have a genuine inability to shave for medical reasons being given the opportunity to maintain close-cropped facial hair that allows for a mask to seal properly.
A recent ruling from a Federal Judge, for example, shows that the FDNY must allow African Americans suffering from Pseudofolliculitis Barbae to be able to do this.
Here is a video on this topic on contention:
Other Facial Hair And The Fire Service
Being “clean-shaven” in the fire service, usually, only applies to the beard line, as that’s where a face mask needs to make a seal against the skin.
The way the masks are designed, however, means that you can grow a mustache or your sideburns out and they won’t interfere with the seal.
There was a point when a mustache was a fireman’s badge of pride, there are estimates that at some points in history, nearly half of New York’s firefighters were sporting mustaches.
You can hear more about its history and why it is so common to see a mustache on firefighters:
Most fire services do set some limits on mustaches and sideburns, but these are not as strict as for beards and appear to be based around professional dress codes rather than safety requirements.
Can I Have A Beard And Be A Firefighter?
We can’t give you an answer to this question. That’s because we do not speak for the majority of fire services in this country and as a beard policy is a local service policy – you’ll need to talk to your local service to find out.
If your local department says it will take firefighters with beards, you should try to get this in writing, as if things change farther down the road – it may help you keep hold of your beard.
An Example Of Firefighting Policy And Facial Hair
We would encourage you to take a look at this example policy regarding facial hair and fit-testing for one service.
You will note that it requires firefighters to be clean-shaven to form a seal with a mask and advises the fire service if that condition cannot be met, they should place the individual in a different role or contact a Labor Attorney to see how to resolve the issue.
We think, for the foreseeable future, it’s unlikely that many fire departments will be relaxing their policy on beards. You should bear this in mind when choosing your profession if having a beard is important to you.