- The Washington Times - Friday, April 6, 2001

District of Columbia Fire Chief Ronnie Few will require firefighters to don standard-issue sleepwear beginning this summer after one fireman complained about another's sleeping attire in November.

Each of the fire department's 1,200 firefighters will be outfitted with sleepwear consisting of two pairs of shorts and two shirts bearing the department's logo at a cost of $24 per person, or $28,800 total.

Fire department spokesman Alan Etter said the November incident that sparked a firefighter's complaint did not involve a homosexual advance. The firefighter thought the other's clothing was insufficient, he said.

"That sparked [Chief Few's] thinking on this, but it's a good idea. He was going to do it anyway," said Mr. Etter.

Chief Few ordered sleepwear for his former department in Augusta, Ga., Mr. Etter said.

Critics of the decision call the new gear "pj's," saying the sleepwear decision has made the department the butt of jokes among firefighters across the nation.

"It's insulting. It sends the message that all firefighters do is drink coffee and play checkers," said Kenny Cox, vice president of the D.C. Firefighters Association.

Mr. Etter said sleepwear is part of the chief's plan to improve the department from the top down. "This is in keeping with that thought of uniformity," he said. "It goes to professionalism."

"He wanted to mitigate any future issues that might come up," Mr. Etter said, acknowledging those "issues" to be complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

The problem was resolved within the department and never made it to the EEOC, he said.

"The guy was given a written reprimand. Both men were counseled. It was left at that and it hasn't been a problem since," Mr. Etter said.

At a luncheon interview with The Washington Times last month, Chief Few said he would introduce sleepwear to mitigate potential sexual-harassment complaints.

The department will soon face such a claim, along with accusations of racial harassment, because of an underground newsletter that has been circulating in the department for about two years.

The Fire & EMS Lowlights began as a gossip rag and ended publication in January with racist, sexist and homophobic slurs, according to an attorney for five black women who plan to file a racial and sexual-harassment lawsuit against the department.

"It's the most vile, disgusting, pornographic, homophobic, racially and discriminatory piece of trash I've ever seen," said Caren Hersh, who represents the women four supervisors in the Emergency Medical Services Division and one paramedic.

The author, who goes by "Homie D. Clown," identifies several of the women by name, using sexual innuendoes and profanity, according to several editions obtained by The Times.

After the January issue of the newsletter, the first published under Chief Few's tenure, he issued a directive ordering it to stop. The newsletter has not appeared since then, and department officials are considering how to uncover its author, Mr. Etter said.

On another front, enforcement of Chief Few's new grooming policy, particularly for hair and beards, has sparked outrage among firefighters, their union and outside groups.

A national Islamic advocacy group yesterday called on the chief to allow Muslim firefighters to retain their beards, which they keep untrimmed by religious order.

"They are not trying to be defiant, they are not trying to break the rules, they're just trying to do their jobs and practice their faith," said Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Firefighter Calvert Potter, a Muslim, was suspended yesterday for not trimming his beard, the fifth firefighter to be placed on paid administrative leave since enforcement began this week.

The grooming policy states beards must be less than one-quarter of an inch long and hair must not be below the collar for men and women. Longer hair can be pinned up on duty, but it cannot interfere with firefighter equipment, such as a breathing mask.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of the National Capital Area has written to Chief Few warning him that his policy violates the D.C. Human Rights Act.

A memo issued last month by the District's legal arm, the Office of the Corporation Counsel, states the policy is "legally unobjectionable."

Chief Few said he began enforcement to promote professionalism and ensure safety a beard could prevent an air mask from forming a seal to the face and long hair could prevent equipment from fitting properly.

Mr. Cox said the sleepwear and grooming policies are damaging morale, particularly when larger issues are troubling the department.

"Where's he getting the money from?" he said. "He can't find the money for fixing up firehouses or back pay… . That's why this sticks in the craw of the rank and file because his priorities are out of whack."

Mr. Etter disputed that account, saying Chief Few has made strides in tackling some of the department's major problems.

"He is the only fire chief in recent memory that has a comprehensive capital plan to start refurbishing and rebuilding some of the fire stations," he said, adding that workers will begin installing exhaust ventilation systems in some stations this year.

Mr. Etter said the last of three engine companies on Sunday will gain a fifth firefighter, a key safety recommendation in several reports that followed the deaths of three D.C. firefighters since 1997.

As for back pay, he said, "that's still being worked on."

Chief Few is meeting with congressional officials for possible federal help in covering the payment, Mr. Etter said.


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