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SANDY BANKS

LAFD tattoo coverup muddles real mission

June 21, 2008|SANDY BANKS

I might be a little nervous walking past Carlos Caceres on the street, tattoos covering his beefy arms and the back of his hands and creeping up his neck from beneath his shirt.

But what would I think if Capt. Caceres rolled up to my burning house in a fire truck?

That question is at the heart of a new controversy in the Los Angeles City Fire Department -- one that is rekindling smoldering tensions by making tattooed firefighters the butt of jokes.

At issue is a policy the department announced this spring, requiring firefighters with tattoos to cover their body art whenever they are on duty.

For many that's an easy order to follow; their uniform sleeves reach to their elbow creases.

But for hundreds of firefighters like Caceres, that means wearing long-sleeved shirts, turtlenecks, long pants, even gloves, around the clock. It's not just when the fire bell rings, but inside the fire station when they train, eat, exercise and sleep.

It's a "grooming issue," said Capt. Armando Hogan, spokesman for Chief Douglas Barry. "We need to make sure we're professional-looking. We've got an image to uphold."

Image?

This is a department that recently cost the city $16 million in payoffs to firefighters who've been insulted, harassed and discriminated against on the job. And they're worried that people will think they're unprofessional because a guy has his kids' names inked on his arm or flames crawling up his neck?

Give me a department full of guys like Caceres, an 18-year veteran who has his entire body inked with family names and faces, images of fire and comic book characters.

"I don't care what the guy next to me looks like," he told me. "Can you go into a house and pull a body out? Can you tie the right knot to get a guy off a cliff? That's what matters."

Or John O'Connor, a 20-year veteran whose forearms are covered with tattooed tributes to other firefighters. "When I show up on an emergency call, I don't think anybody's saying, 'I don't want the tattooed guy to touch Grandma.' "

I think he's right. When I see tattoos on a firefighter, I'm inclined to think "strong and bold," somebody who'll rescue me or my daughters from danger.

The LAFD brass and firefighters' union have been haggling over tattoo proposals for years.

The union and an independent fact-finding panel backed a ban on profane or offensive tattoos, or those that might imply gang ties and threaten fire crews' safety in the field. That makes sense to me.

But the department instead required that all tattoos be covered all the time.

The union has filed a grievance because the policy is being enforced haphazardly. Some battalion chiefs are patrolling dorms, making sure tattooed firefighters sleep in shirts and pants. Others, said union vice president Jon McDuffie, "are using common sense."

"You've got a guy who's been in the Marine Corps, has the tattoos, has been on this department for 20 years. And now all of a sudden he looks unprofessional? In Los Angeles . . . where you've got doctors with dreadlocks, earrings and tattoos?"

Honestly, I'm not a tattoo fan. I'm still wrestling with my teenage daughters over the issue, trying to persuade them not to permanently mark up their bodies with literary quotes, flowers and Tinkerbells.

But the Fire Department's coverup decree strikes me as impractical, unsafe and imposed so ham-handedly, I can almost smell the lawsuits brewing.

When Chief Barry was promoted to the top job last year, his mission was to restore the department's good name and calm internal hostilities.

Instead, his new policy could reduce the pool of recruits and has already trashed morale among veterans and sparked a new round of hazing.

Stories of crude jokes and pranks targeting tattooed firefighters are making the rounds.

"It's frustrating," one firefighter told me. He has to wear long sleeves in the station to cover his arms. "Guys come over and say, 'Boy, it sure is hot, isn't it? I hear it's going to be hotter tomorrow.' You hear a lot of that, and after a while it gets to you. You feel like you're being singled out, made fun of."

Hogan said he hadn't heard about the allegations. "It's a little uncomfortable for some folks in the field. I understand that," he said Thursday from his air-conditioned office. "The policy will be reviewed to see if it's as impractical as people are claiming."

So, while the city was baking in record-breaking, triple-digit, tinderbox heat, he was contemplating whether forcing tattooed firefighters to wear long sleeves is "meeting the needs of the citizens."

As a citizen, let me tell you what would meet my needs: A fire department that focuses more on firefighters' competence than the ink on their skin.

--

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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