GLAA criticizes Fire/EMS Department policies
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ACLU National Capital Area

GLAA on Civil Rights

GLAA on Public Safety

Testimony for the Performance Oversight Hearing
on the Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department

Committee on the Judiciary
D.C. Council

February 15, 2002

Chairman Patterson, Members of the Committee, and Fellow Citizens:

Good afternoon, my name is Bob Summersgill. I am the President of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington, DC, the nation's oldest continuously active gay and lesbian rights organization. We will be celebrating our 31st anniversary on April 18 at the Hotel Washington. You will be receiving our invitations shortly.

When I testified at Chief Ronnie Few's confirmation hearing on September 27, 2000, I expressed concerns that his background did not give us confidence in his abilities to lead a fire department in a large and diverse city such as DC. Since becoming Chief, he has failed to prove that he is up to the job.

We have been hearing for over two years that the training program is being revised. The draft training program doesn't include anything about transgender or gay people, other than questionable definitions. It is supposed to be named in honor of Tyra Hunter, who was victimized by the bigotry of firefighter Adrian Williams that resulted in a lawsuit ultimately settled at a cost to the District taxpayers of $1.75 million. In the past year, the gay and lesbian community has not been consulted to help develop a new diversity-training program. No plans have been made for representatives of various groups to speak for themselves. As we have seen with the Police, the "expert" trainers have only demonstrated their incompetence to speak for the gay and lesbian community. The only change in the training manual that has been implemented while Chief Few has been on the job is the addition of a section on sexual harassment.

The need for training in dealing with gay people is made clear by recent incidents of Fire/EMS Department employees demonstrating inappropriate and unprofessional behavior on the job.

A student at Catholic University was recently injured. When the young man sought treatment for his bruised eye, he and his partner got in a DC ambulance. The EMS employee asked if he'd been in a fight. He said yes because a guy called his partner a faggot. The EMS employee replied: "Well, aren't you a faggot?" He replied yes and the "N" word. The female EMS worker looked at him and understood why he said it. In other words, just because he's gay does not make it appropriate or professional for this EMS worker to call him a faggot.

Wanda Alston, the Mayor's GLBT Community Liaison has told us of a similar incident, but she would not provided the details while it was being investigated.

We were disappointed last April to learn that Chief Few has disciplined and threatened to terminate firefighters because of the length of their hair or facial hair.

This is in clear violation of the DC Human Rights Act and Mayor William's Order 2000-131 dated August 21, 2000. Among the 15 categories under which neither the city nor private employers may discriminate is personal appearance.

Paragraph 22 of the definitions section of the Human Rights Act states:

"'Personal appearance' means the outward appearance of any person, irrespective of sex, with regard to bodily condition or characteristics, manner or style of dress, and manner or style of personal grooming, including, but not limited to, hair style and beards. It shall not relate, however, to the requirement of cleanliness, uniforms, or prescribed standards, when uniformly applied for admittance to a public accommodation, or when uniformly applied to a class of employees for a reasonable business purpose; or when such bodily conditions or characteristics, style or manner of dress or personal grooming presents a danger to the health, welfare or safety of any individual."

The 1973 law explicitly protects employees who wish to grow beards or have hairstyles to their liking.

The additional claim by some firefighters of religious significance of their beards or hairstyle only compounds the offense. The City has lost a preliminary injunction in Federal court, brought by the ACLU, but the case is still proceeding towards a final judgment. The ACLU also represents the firefighters before the Office of Human Rights for discrimination based on personal appearance.

Chief Few in public statements and his Special Order of April 1, 2001 make clear that safety is only a secondary concern of the policy. Chief states the policy "will be implemented now as part of my effort to increase discipline, uniformity, safety and espirit de corp [sic] throughout this Department. It is important for our members to project a positive public image that is consistent with wearing uniforms." However, the only legitimate grounds for the Chief's policy is safety. He lists it third, almost an afterthought.

If Chief Few has reason to believe that a firefighter's choice of hairstyle or beard poses a safety risk, then a safety test should be performed. However, the safety concern does not appear to be supported by any evidence or experience. Specifically, the grooming policy is based on the appearance of safety and not on objective tests of safety.

GLAA is very concerned about the safety of DC residents, visitors and employees. However, this policy controversy has pointed out a lack of regular and consistent safety checks for the Fire Department. Chief Few has not responded in any manner to GLAA's requests for information on the frequency of safety equipment checks. In particular, the Self Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) fit test needs to be conducted periodically for all personnel. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recommends that all firefighters be tested at least once a year. Facial hair can cause the SCBA not to seal properly. However, a blanket policy on length of facial hair will not accurately determine a lack of seal, nor will it identify poorly fitting SCBA on women and clean shaven men.

The press reports indicate that this critical safety test is not being conducted at all. Why not? If it is being conducted, what is the schedule for the fit test, and is it being followed? How are personnel failing the fit test being re-equipped with properly fitting SCBA gear?

Chief Few's grooming policy also prohibits "extreme" haircuts and color. This is wholly a matter of fashion and taste which varies from time to time. Personal taste in fashion is precisely what the Human Rights Act intends to protect. Afros, cornrows, and shaved heads among other hair styles have all been called extreme at various times. Prohibiting them has no benefit, does injury to the Human Rights Act, and creates a lack of discipline, and esprit de corps of the firefighters as evidenced by their recent vote of no confidence.

Restrictions on the length of hair--also part of the grooming policy--can be made into a safety-based, and not appearance based, policy by adopting the plain language recommended by Women in Fire Service, Inc.: "No hair shall be exposed during fire fighting activities."

Additionally, regular checks of safety equipment and protective gear need to be made in an ongoing fashion. A national survey by Women in Fire Service shows a significant problem with ill-fitting equipment. What checks are being made within the DC Fire Department? Chief Few and the Mayor refuse to tell us.

In fact, we have been told that Wanda Alston, who formerly worked for Deputy Mayor Margret Kellems, was specifically ordered not to respond to GLAA's letters by Ms. Kellems. Ms. Kellems would not even allow the courtesy of acknowledging our comments. GLAA sent a letter on June 6 to the Mayor, cc'ed to Chief Few and all councilmembers outlining how the policy could be subtly changed to give Chief Few 90% of his stated goals and bring the policy into conformance with DC law and the U.S. Constitution. The only response we received was from the ACLU agreeing with the proposed changes.

Only a policy based on safety, and not the appearance of safety will pass legal and political muster. Safety guidelines need to be based on actual and verifiable safety tests performed on a case-by-case basis.

On the couple of occasions that I have confronted Chief Few on the policy, he simply dismissed my concerns about safety. It is not clear whether he doesn't understand basic safety issues, the DC Human Rights Act, and the First Amendment or if he is willfully disdainful of them. Under no circumstances should the first response by Chief Few be for the termination of firefighters.

Chief Few's illegal policy on facial hair and hairstyle must be reversed and Chief Few needs to apologize to the firefighters and the City of Washington.

Thank you, I am available for any questions that you may have.

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