Summersgill in City Paper: Chief Few's safety problem
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Summersgill in City Paper: Chief Few's safety problem

Washington City Paper
Friday, August 24, 2001
Letters to the Editor

To the Editor:

The article on Chief Few ("Under Fire" by Mark Francis Cohen, August 10, 2001) was enlightening for all of the safety, disciple and morale problems that he has brought on himself. However, the article overlooked one major safety issue. One of the most basic pieces of safety equipment that firefighters have is their Self Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA). This allows firefighters to breath in smoke-filled and oxygen-depleted buildings. SCBA allow firefighters to enter burning buildings, and why unequipped civilians never should.

Critical to the functioning of the SCBA is a proper fit. If the SCBA doesn't seal against the face, it will not work properly and can be a hazard itself. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recommends that all firefighters have a SCBA fit test at least once a year. But this simple test is not being conducted annually by the D.C. Fire Department-a fact that has astonished firefighters from other jurisdictions.

Instead of implementing this basic safety check, Chief Few has tried to implement a grooming policy that has not only already been struck down in court but one that is based on a spurious appearance of safety. A mustache or beard might interfere with the proper fit of the SCBA mask, but then again it might not. The SCBA fit test would resolve the issue.

Few has already lost in Federal court which found the grooming policy to be in violation of the religious freedom clause of the First Amendment, in a suit brought by the local ACLU affiliate. He is also bound to lose at the D.C. Human Rights Office for violating the provision of the D.C. Human Rights Act of 1977 prohibiting employment discrimination based on personal appearance.

A safety-based policy would achieve most of what Few wants to see from the grooming policy. Unfortunately he has dug his heels in, and has refused to consider minor changes to the grooming policy that would base it on safety. The policy changes that we in the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance have proposed would end the ongoing legal battles; and bring the policy into compliance with the Human Rights Act and the First Amendment.

Hair needs to be maintained in a way that doesn't interfere with the safety equipment. But the determination of what is safe must be through objective safety tests and not through arbitrary grooming standards.

Chief Few can either revise the Fire Department's grooming policy and implement yearly SCBA fit tests, or wait until the courts and the Human Rights Office impose these common-sense practices on him.


Bob Summersgill
Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington, DC

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