MOBILE, Ala. (WKRG) — Kay’Ana Adams wears her tattoos with pride, just as she used to wear her fire-rescue uniform with pride until she was fired over a tattoo on the back of her head.
Adams worked at the Maryvale station of the Mobile Fire Department in Alabama for nine months until new ink on the back of her head changed everything.
When she got the head tattoo in June 2022, she believed it adhered to the fire department’s policy, which then prohibited “tattoos on the face or neck.”
“Hiring people before, during and after me — with neck tattoos more prominent than mine — was also kind of impactful in that as well,” said Adams. “I figured mine could be done in decency and order. I could also, based off the rules, cover it up.”
But that was not the case.
“Somebody put in a complaint in regard to my tattoo, and the next thing I knew, I was being investigated for it, interrogated behind it, and then they made their decision that I was in violation of policy,” said Adams.
The city gave Adams the option to grow her hair out to hide the tattoo, and she did it, according to Adams.
Weeks later, according to Adams, a different complaint was made regarding her hair being grown out and not being in compliance with the city’s policy.
“We have different textures of hair,” said Adams, a Black woman. “So, you have no idea how long it takes for my hair to grow.”
Three months after Adams got her tattoo, the department changed its policy to also prohibit head tattoos above the neckline.
On Nov. 10, a captain at the Maryvale station took a photo of the back of Adams’ head. The tattoo was no longer visible. Despite her attempts to comply with the previous and updated tattoo policies, Adams says she was fired that same day.
“Definitely blindsided. I never thought it would come to this, especially considering I was in compliance. I’m not necessarily out here trying to be disobedient, and I’m not breaking any laws or anything like that. It’s just a tattoo,” said Adams. “What’s behind me shouldn’t affect the work that’s in front of me.”
In a written statement provided to Nexstar’s WKRG, Public Safety Director Lawrence Battiste wrote, “I can confirm a former firefighter was terminated earlier this year (2022) during their working test period for failing to meet MFRD standards.”
The working test period is six months. Adams says hers was extended by an additional six months.
WKRG asked if any other currently serving Mobile firefighters had tattoos that violated department policy.
“Yes,” said the Mobile City Spokesperson, who explained that at least one other firefighter has a neck tattoo. He was not terminated for policy violation, according to the city, but instead is being allowed to cover the tattoo until its required removal.
Adams believes she was fired not just because of her head tattoo and her hair but because she spoke up about things she experienced and observed during her time as a trainee and new firefighter.
“How else [was] I supposed to feel, you know, especially coming to work every day on time, doing exactly what I was supposed to do, trying to go above and beyond, helping out where I can? What else … could assume?,” asked Adams.
Adams says she filed one grievance about the tattoo complaint against her.
She also alleges she observed and then filed two complaints, each describing multiple instances of what she says was harassment and antagonization. Some, she alleges, were sexist statements by two male firefighters at her station, including disparaging remarks she says a male firefighter made about “feminism and women’s rights.”
“Statements in regard to, you know, ‘I don’t want to work with women,'” said Adams. “It just, it definitely impacts you.”
Her termination for the tattoo came just days before Adams expected to get a response on the grievance she filed in response to the complaint about her hair.
Though she did not file a formal complaint, Adams says she also witnessed and “spoke up about” what she called a disturbing incident at the training academy.
“It was rope week, and a decent amount of people and the other half of the classroom were discussing, trying to tie nooses,” said Adams. “And, you know, instinctively, I guess I just kind of stood up and said, ‘You know, if you want to learn how to do that, I think that it’s best you do that on your free time.'”
Adams says she confided in two fire captains at her station, Captain Jason Craig and Captain Rodrick Shoots, about her concerns.
Adams, Shoots, and Craig are members of the Black Progressive Firefighters Association.
“Without them, I don’t know how bad it could’ve been. You know I’ve had people yelling at me in my face, and me as a woman and these being men,” said Adams. “I just, I don’t know what would’ve happened if they weren’t there for me. So, it is good that I had people in my corner, willing to stand up for me and, you know, have my best interests at heart.”
Adams says Captain Shoots and Captain Craig were both disciplined after they spoke up to defend her on several occasions during the process of dealing with the complaints against her about the tattoo on her head. Captain Jason Craig was suspended. Captain Rodrick Shoots was fired.
In a written statement, Public Safety Director Lawrence Battiste said Shoots was terminated for “attempting to obstruct a valid order from a superior officer, ignoring orders and using disrespectful and defiant language to a superior officer.” And Craig was suspended for 30 days for “insubordination, failure to follow orders from a superior officer and failure to investigate, document and report a violation of MFRD policy.”
Captain Shoots will appeal his termination during a hearing scheduled for Jan. 17, 2023. Captain Craig will appeal his suspension during a hearing scheduled for Jan. 19, 2023.
Adams has filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint against the department.
Through a spokesperson, Mobile Fire Chief Jeremy Lami and Mayor Sandy Stimpson refused requests for on-camera interviews about the disciplinary actions taken against the three firefighters, saying these are personnel matters subject to litigation.