October 24, 2021

What’s the story with the ‘stache?

Part tradition, part preference for firefighter

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Cortlandville volunteer firefighter Bob Bombard adjusts his handlebar mustache Friday while at department headquarters in Cortlandville. Bombard said the last time he shaved was in 1985.

Take a look at Mahlon Irish Jr.’s ‘stache. Huge. Nearly to the jawline. A beautiful bit of white facial fur.

Mahlon Irish Jr.

He’s not alone. Go to a fire scene, chances are you’ll catch more than a few firefighters with them. It may be a firefighter thing. While some police have mustaches, it’s not like that. Don’t expect to see them on a nurse, or in the military.

So what is it about firefighters and facial hair? Is it personal preference or something they do to have a deeper connection to the profession they serve in?

To start the trek of looking around and talking with firefighters, the first stop was in Homer.

Three decades of hair

Irish, the fire chief in Homer, has had a mustache since 1985, he said. “It’s just something I wanted to grow,” Irish said. “It didn’t have anything to do with the fire service.

Irish’s mustache is a full mustache with hair grown on the corners of the lips and down the sides of the mouth to the jawline.

In firefighting a mustache is the only facial hair firefighter can have, Irish said.

Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations restrict the type of facial hair allowed when wearing self-contained breathing apparatus, gear that firefighter wear inside burning structures. Hair can impede a tight seal.

So whose mustache does Irish notice? Bob Bombard’s in Cortlandville.

A handle(bar) on service

Bombard, a volunteer firefighter with the Cortlandville Fire Department, has had his mustache for a long time, but the one he has now has been growing since 1985 — the last time he shaved. He sometimes waxes it into handlebars.

For Bombard, a mustache is more than just personal preference, it’s a connection. “In the old days firefighter would have long mustaches and beards,” he said.

Bombard said the facial hair was said to be used as a filter when wet down to prevent smoke from going into the lungs. But how true that is, Bombard isn’t sure.

Legend has it that firefighters in the mid-1800s would wear mustaches as a personal protective device, according to the Fire Museum Network.

The theory, according to Paul Hashagen, a fire service historian and author, was a firefighter would dip his whiskers in a pail or water and then clinch the wet hair between his teeth and breathe, using the hair as a filter.

True or not, the mustache makes Bombard feel part of a firefighting brotherhood.

“I think it’s part of traditional bonding,” he said.

Mixed reason

One Cortland firefighter has had his mustache for close to 30 years. Deputy Chief William Knickerbocker said his mustache, similar to Irish’s, has a mixed origin. “It’s a little bit of tradition, but more personal,” he said.

William Knickerbocker

The mustache is a popular thing among firefighters Knickerbocker said. “They are a tradition, I suppose,” he said.

However, Knickerbocker said firefighter have to be careful as to how long the hair gets, reiterating the regulations for the air packs.

Not every department has a fondness for the follicles.

Marathon Deputy Fire Chief Larri Leet said none of the firefighters in Marathon’s department wear a mustache.

The reason goes back to the requirements with the breathing gear. “You can’t have any hair in the seal of the mask,” Leet said. “It (the requirements) cuts down on a lot of facial hair.”

’Stache or no ’stache

Regardless the reason, or reasons, for having a mustache, Bombard sees a kindred spirit on certain faces.

If you see someone with a mustache shaped a certain way. “If they are not in gear or labeling, you might say they are a firefighter,” he said.