The Holidays are upon us. As I worked on this piece, I was frequently surrounded by Christmas cards. The cards arrived from all parts of the area; from hospitals, other departments, former patients and the like. On one of these cards, I saw an image of Santa Claus in a fire engine. With his full, snow-white beard flowing in the wind, I can only assume that he and Rudolph were en route to a commercial alarm at the candy cane factory. The image on the card inspired the following work.
When I was very new, one of my first calls was providing a mutual aid brush truck to another local department. It dispatched as a small corn-stubble fire, under an acre, but I felt like I was living out scenes from Backdraft. There is little doubt that I looked absolutely ridiculous.
When we arrived, the fire was mostly under control; only a few thin swipes of orange remained on an otherwise muddy, smoky backdrop.
It was a massive let down.
We still had our fun, ran a few laps in the brush, played with the monitor, filled up a few times- 350 gallons somehow stretched both longer and shorter than I had thought- and were unceremoniously released by command.
On our way back I savored the moment- being on a relatively small department, I could be waiting a while for my next fire (note: I did not have to wait long, but that’s another story).
As I replayed the images from our heinous, corn-fed inferno, one detail that initially went unnoticed suddenly stuck out; did some of those guys have beards?
Like, really big beards.
The variety of facial hair was as diverse as it was impressive. Grizzly Adams scruff, pencil-thin chin straps, wizard-style goatees, even.
It couldn’t be; Since day one, I had been hammered with the mantra “NO BEARDS!”
Mustaches were more than ok, if not encouraged, in some circles.
Sideburns were cheesy but acceptable.
Two-day stubble would incite fresh Hell, but it wasn’t the end of the world. After all, everyone wants to be a rugged TV fireman. Five minutes in front of a mirror can fix that.
But real-life firefighters with beards? I was dumbfounded.
“So… how do they go in?” I asked my lieutenant, wondering how they could ever achieve a good seal on their masks.
The lieutenant thought for a moment, never taking his eyes off the road, and simply replied;
“…don’t know. I guess they don’t.”
Some of you reading this that hail from other regions of the country (or world) might find this hard to believe, but beards are a relatively common occurrence on rural departments where I’m from.
Does this make them bad people? No.
Does this make them bad firefighters? No. Often, it’s quite the opposite. A fair portion of these guys have invaluable “jack-of-all-trades” knowledge that can’t be acquired at even the best of fire academies.
Does this make them selfish? Yes.
The employer 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; or…
Read two of these words very carefully: Shall not
It doesn’t say “might not” or “should not.”
It says “shall not,” which should be pretty self-explanatory.
So why does this make them selfish? Because, to me, it says “I know I could be creating a dangerous situation for my brothers and sisters, but damnit, I look good with facial hair.”
To be clear, the men I’m talking about aren’t fighting to keep their facial hair for religious purposes or some other equally important and understandable reason. They aren’t refusing to shave to keep sacred, age-old cultural tenets. On such matters as culture and religion, I believe we need to at least listen and keep an open mind.
They just don’t want to shave. Because.
Nobody cares about your beard, specifically. Professional appearances aside, we care that if your mask doesn’t seal and work perfectly as intended (and it won’t, don’t even argue) you’re allowing for a needless accident to occur that the rest of us will have to un-stick you from. This puts all of us at risk.
Why shouldn’t you go into a fire without a helmet? Because it’s dangerous, and others could die trying to save you if you get whacked in the head. Seems fair to suppose that going in with an ill-fitting mask would be equally reckless.
What is a firefighter without functioning gear and tools? A liability. A bystander.
Is your beard worth a brother or sister? Is it worth risking a child’s mother or father? Your life?
If choosing between a stylish fad beard and the safety of your crew causes even a moment of pause, state fire code requires that a clearly marked exit be present in nearly every public structure.