A District firefighter who won the right to have a beard on duty was declared AWOL yesterday by D.C. Fire Department officials because he did not report to his new clerical assignment but reported instead to his old assignment.
Brian Kennedy, who won his case before the D.C. Office of Human Rights, said he wanted his old firefighter's job back and reported back to work at his old station house in Georgetown yesterday. But fire officials told him to report for a clerical job in the department's truck-repair division and declared him absent without leave when he did not appear.
The D.C. Office of Human Rights ruled that Kennedy should be able to work as a firefighter and have a beard despite department rules to the contrary. Fire Department officials yesterday defended the decision to reassign Kennedy and said that they probably will appeal the decision because they consider beards unsafe.
Fire Department rules forbid the wearing of beards because, officials say, a bearded firefighter may have trouble keeping an air mask fully adhered to his face, and smoke or toxic fumes could kill a firefighter without a sealed mask.
Yesterday Kennedy, 32, of Rockville, and Fire Department officials reached a standoff as the red-haired, red-bearded Kennedy held a press conference outside Engine Company 5 headquarters on Dent Place NW.
Flanked by his lawyers, Kennedy told reporters why he wasn't reporting for duty at the truck-repair division, across town on Half Street SW.
"I view it as an additional form of harassment," Kennedy said.
"Right now, he's in an absent-without-leave status," acting deputy fire chief Harold Barbour said inside the fire house yesterday, a few feet away from Kennedy. "If you don't follow orders, you can be considered insubordinate."
Kennedy, a five-year veteran of the force, was suspended from his firefighting job in July 1981 just weeks after growing a beard, was reinstated as a dispatcher and then fired in July 1982.
The local American Civil Liberties Union, acting as Kennedy's lawyer, appealed the firing to the city's Office of Human Rights.
After a hearing on the matter, Anita Shelton, director of the Office of Human Rights, announced her decision last week that Kennedy should be allowed to keep his short beard and moustache. She upheld a hearing examiner's earlier decision that cited the city's human rights law, which forbids discrimination in hiring on the basis of personal appearance. Shelton also upheld the hearing examiner's decision that Kennedy should get his old firefighting job back and should receive one year's back pay, according to Kennedy's lawyers.
Kennedy and his lawyers considered that decision a victory, but when he showed up at work yesterday, fire officials told him he was being temporarily reassigned to the clerical job across town. Citing Shelton's decision, Kennedy refused to show up for the other job.
Fire Department officials said they are abiding by Shelton's decision and are considering filing administrative charges against Kennedy for failing to appear for the clerical job. Battalion Chief Michael Tippett, a department spokesman, said department officials disagree with Shelton's decision and are considering appealing it.