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Think Before you Ink by By Chief Sam DiGiovanna

Firefighters and tattoos just seem to go together. Maybe the practice appeals to our Type A, risk-taking personalities. Or maybe we're drawn to visibly communicate our values and interests for the same reasons we're drawn to being part of the fire service "brotherhood."

But tattoos have also been a source of controversy in public safety. Do they make firefighters look unprofessional? Does 90-year-old Mrs. Smith get scared when the firefighter/EMT responding to her medical emergency sports two sleeves and a neck brand? Are some tattoos OK but not others?

Whether you're a new firefighter or a veteran, before you decide to take on "ink," following are some things to consider:

- What's your agency's policy? You might be surprised how many firefighters failed to take that into account in the spur of the moment. Policies vary widely; some agencies have a strict no-tattoo policy, some allow tattoos only if they can't be seen/exposed when the firefighter is in uniform, and others limit tattoos to certain places (e.g., no ink below the elbow). Many departments allow tattoos if you're willing to cover them up so they can't be seen — but consider how inconvenient that could be. You're going to need to love that tattoo if you have to wear long sleeves when it's 100 degrees and you're cleaning the apparatus!

- What are the policies of neighboring departments? Even if your department allows the tattoo you're thinking about getting, other departments might not. If there's any chance you might want to make a lateral move or shoot for a position in management with another agency, it's best to consider their policy, too. Or, play it safe and choose an easily concealed location for your body art.

- Could the tattoo be deemed offensive or inappropriate? As firefighters, we're welcomed into people's homes to help them because we're seen as trustworthy, compassionate people. Let's face it—some tattoos connote the opposite. And that could cause you additional trouble. The Lexipol policy on tattoos, for example, gives the chief sole discretion on whether a tattoo is inappropriate (in which case it must be covered). Inappropriate marks include those that "exhibit or advocate discrimination against sex, race, religion, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, age (40 and over), physical or mental disability or medical condition, or marital status; marks that promote or express gang, supremacist or extremist group affiliation; and marks that depict or promote drug use, sexually explicit acts or other obscene material." So, maybe save the burning skull design for your back!

- Are you aware of the health hazards associated with tattoos? Although tattooing is generally a safe practice, there are risks. Some are obvious — a disreputable parlor may use improperly sterilized needles, leading to the risk of infection and communicable diseases. But many people don't know that tattoo ink can contain heavy metals, including mercury, lead and arsenic. These metals are associated with cancer, liver issues and birth defects. Leading tattoo ink manufacturers include such warning labels on their products, but as a customer you might never see the product container. You can avoid these risks by seeking out a tattoo parlor that works with non-metallic organic inks, but they can be difficult to find.

- Are you relying on the idea that you can get the tattoo removed if you decide you don't like it? While tattoo removal is possible, it's not an option on every design. Further, it's a painful, expensive and slow process. And removing a tattoo can increase the health risks, because the ink is dissolved, releasing the heavy metals into the bloodstream where they can cause more damage. Don't rely on tattoo removal as an option; be sure you're committed to the tattoo design and location for life.

- As you can see, the decision to get a tattoo isn't one to be taken lightly, especially for firefighters. Here are seven more questions you should consider if you're thinking of going under the needle.

Don't let a hasty decision ruin your chances for employment or promotion in the fire service. Before you ink, think!

Sam DiGiovanna is a 33-year fire service veteran. He started with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, served as Fire Chief at the Monrovia Fire Department and currently serves as Chief at the Verdugo Fire Academy in Glendale, Calif. He also is a consultant for Lexipol Fire Services.

About the Author: Verdugo Fire Academy/Lexipol Consultant

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