- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Prince George’s County fire officials bar D.C. firefighters from participating in all but the most immediate life-or-death operations because some of them might have beards, which could pose a safety risk.

The unwritten policy was developed several years ago after an incident in which county fire officials noticed that D.C. firefighters who had been called to assist on a fire scene were unshaven, said Mark Brady, a spokesman for the Prince George’s County fire department.

However, in those most serious situations, “If the District of Columbia fire department would be the first to arrive at the scene, we would not hesitate to dispatch them,” Mr. Brady said.

He said the decision is a judgment call made by dispatchers and supervisors.

In less-critical situations such as when county firefighters are on a fire scene that requires additional units, the decision to ask for resources from the District must come from a deputy chief.

As a condition of employment, county firefighters are only permitted a 24-hour growth of facial hair, since their shifts are 24 hours long.

Alan Etter, a spokesman for the D.C. fire department, said city fire officials are aware of the concerns raised by their counterparts in Prince George’s County.

D.C. Fire Chief Adrian H. Thompson last month issued an order saying that all firefighters must be clean-shaven so that their protective masks can properly fit their faces.

“Their policy regarding facial hair is very much like the policy we are trying to institute,” Mr. Etter said.

The policy in Prince George’s County was established in accordance with Maryland Occupational Safety and Health standards, derived from federal standards set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

According to OSHA Standard 1910.134, employers “shall not permit respirators with tight-fitting facepieces to be worn by employees who have facial hair that comes between the sealing surface of the facepiece and the face or that interferes with valve function.”

The District is not held accountable for the OSHA standard because it is not a state, but fire officials say they are attempting to comply out of safety concerns.

“Now that they have different standards for safety, you may see an increase in the use of the District of Columbia fire department,” Mr. Brady said, adding that mutual aid calls between the two departments are “very rare.”

But a lawyer for the D.C. chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said Chief Thompson’s order violates a preliminary injunction issued in a 2001 case in which six firefighters challenged the department on the point the policy violated their religious freedom.

A federal judge said Monday that he would decide the case after an Aug. 1 hearing that will examine whether safety concerns outweigh religious freedom. If the judge rules against the fire department, the case will likely result in further legal challenges that aim to roll back the grooming policy throughout the department.

Mr. Brady said the policy of calling in D.C. firefighters in life-threatening emergencies will continue, no matter the outcome of the hearing.

Maryland and Virginia have state occupational safety and health plans, so the fire departments in the jurisdictions surrounding the District have grooming policies that prohibit beards.

Pete Piringer, a spokesman for the Montgomery County fire department, said there are no restrictions on D.C. firefighters operating in the county, even though that county also prohibits firefighters from wearing beards.

Mr. Piringer said a Muslim firefighter in the county has an exemption from the grooming policy, but he serves in an administrative capacity.

“Anybody in a firefighting position that is required to have a proper fit [for their breathing apparatus] may not” wear a beard, Mr. Piringer said.

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