Traditions

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Maltese CrossThe Maltese Cross

The Maltese cross is known around the world as a symbol of the fire service. It is often seen painted on fire trucks, on the clothing of firefighters, depicted on firefighters badges, and is quite often the chosen design of firefighter tattoos.

The Maltese cross has its origins going back to the era of the Crusades and is named after the island of Malta which came to be the home of the Knights of St. John. The Knights of St. John existed during the 11th and 12 centuries. To help identify friend from foe during the fighting, they needed a symbol that could be used to quickly and easily identify themselves. They chose the Cross of Calvary (which would later be known as the Maltese cross) as their symbol because the Crusades were battles fought for a holy cause. During these battles, the enemies of the knights commonly used fire as a weapon. It was not uncommon for a Knight to have to risk his own life to extinguish a fire or rescue a comrade. Because of their ability to fight fires, and the pride and honor they took in the care of their sick and injured, the Maltese cross evolved into a fitting symbol of the modern fire service. The cross has since come to represent the principles of charity, loyalty, gallantry, generosity to friend and foe, dexterity of service, and protection of the weak.

DalmationThe Dalmatian Dog
One of the most beloved symbols of the fire service is the Dalmatian dog. The origins of the breed are shrouded in mystery. Experts are unsure really how old the breed is.

It is known that the Dalmatian, because of its poor hunting abilities, was relegated to the stable area of fine homes. It was in these stables that the Dalmatian became acquainted with the horses. Dalmatians were adopted by the fire service in the days of the horse-drawn fire wagons because they were agile and not afraid of the horses. The Dalmatian, with its superior agility and endurance could run out in front of the horses and clear the streets for the approaching fire wagon. When the horses were replaced by gasoline-driven fire engines, many fire departments kept their Dalmatians. In some areas you can still see the Dalmatian standing proudly on top of the fire engine as it races to another emergency.

Early Fire EngineRed Fire Engines
The most widely-accepted reason that fire engines are painted red dates back to the 1800s -- a time when there was a LOT of competition between the fire brigades of neighboring cities and towns. The firefighters of each brigade took great pride in their pump. Each brigade wanted their rig stand out by being the cleanest, having the most brass, or being a regal color. Because red was the most expensive color, that's what color most crews chose to paint the pump.

Other sources cite the tradition of painting fire engines red going back to the early 1920's. Henry Ford wanted to make cars as inexpensively as possible and only offered cars in one color: black. With all of these black vehicles on the road, the fire service began painting their vehicles red in an effort to stand out.

Today, just as you have many more choices of colors available to you for your vehicle, so do the fire engine manufacturers, and it is not uncommon to see white, yellow, blue, orange, green, or even black fire engines, in addition to red. And while some studies hint that colors such as lime-green may be more visible to the public than traditional red, the vast majority of fire departments continue to use red fire engines -- a color instantly recognized by everyone as that of a fire engine.

Early Fire Fighter HelmetHelmet Colors

There is no "set in stone" standard for the color of helmets. Until the 1980's it was common for firefighters to have black helmets. Only chiefs had a different color and that was white. Officers would have an emblem on their black helmets. New helmet design gives us a choice of colors. Captains often have black helmets and Chiefs are usually white. A national consensus is emerging but some departments apparently are clinging to their own traditions. Some departments will have a color for lieutenants while others do not. You may find that EMS personnel have a specific color of helmet in some communities while in others they simply reflect the rank. In the western part of the U. S., officers will have red or white helmets while firefighters (the rank) will have yellow. As you go east you will find black as the more common color for firefighters. LA has yellow helmets. NY has black. Dallas has yellow for non-officers while Houston uses black for firefighters. Luckily you will often find a written out rank position on the helmet.

You may also find different styles of helmets within the same department. This may mean nothing. A department may decide to go to a different style of helmet as replacements are needed. Some departments allow members to purchase their own helmets. Even personally owned gear must comply with national safety standards.

Muskogee Fire Department helmet colors generally indicate the following:

  • White - Chief Officer
  • Black - Company Officer
  • Yellow – Driver or Engineer
  • Red – Private or Firefighter

A helmet is a very personal thing to a firefighter.

Saint Florian

St. Florian medals are popular additions to chains and necklaces for both men and women. St. Florian, the patron saint of firefighters, , was a saint who lived during the time the Romans were trying to eradicate Christianity from the land. He was in charge of the Roman firefighting brigade, hence his association with fire and firefighters.

Many St. Florian medals have the words "St. Florian Protect Us" inscribed around the outside of the medal. The medals may be the traditional round shape, but many people prefer them in the shape of the Maltese Cross, used commonly by firefighters around the world, particularly in the United States.

On the Saint Florian Medal, he is often portrayed as standing above a burning house with a bucket of water in his right hand. This signifies his protection against fire and burning. On some medals St. Florian actually holds the house in his hand, an added sign of protection.

Some fire departments have even commissioned St. Florian Medals with the initials of the department and the badge number of the firefighter inscribed on the medal. These are very often in the shape of the Maltese Cross, with a circular center. On the right and left "arms" of the cross are often inscribed a ladder and a symbol for water, such as a fire hydrant.

Fire Fighters and MDA: A Historic Partnership
One Man's Vision Becomes an International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) Tradition

The lifelong bond between the IAFF and Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) is well acknowledged but, how did it all start?

The tradition began 51 years ago, when a father in desperate need ran to IAFF member George Graney's Fire Engine Company 1 in South Boston. The man's name was Charlie Crowley, father of two crippled sons and a high school friend of George Graney.

"They will not live to be 21 years old," said a somber Crowley. Crowley's sons couldn't walk, attend school, run around, or play games with their friends. The doctors had diagnosed both the children with muscular dystrophy, an incurable and dreadful disease.

Charlie Crowley needed money to take care of his sons. IAFF Local 718 member Graney immediately rounded up 20 fire fighters and set in motion a door-to-door canister drive that raised $5,000. Graney soon learned that there were many families and suffering children like those of Crowley, and Graney made it his lifetime mission to help such families and children. In 1953, he launched a citywide fundraising campaign with the help of fire fighters across Boston. Graney joined hands with Crowley and made presentations across Massachusetts about children suffering from Muscular Dystrophy.

Feeling confident from his success in the commonwealth, Graney suggested Crowley and his friends at the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) to go nationwide with fire fighters in their fundraising efforts. Realizing the potential of fire fighters and their excellent image in the community, Graney and Crowley approached and convinced IAFF members to promote the cause of MDA and to raise money for it.

Finally, between August 9 – 14, 1954, Graney raised his voice at the IAFF's 22nd convention in Miami and proposed to make MDA the International's "charity of choice." MDA's Luis Grant, a victim of muscular dystrophy, gave a tear jerking presentation to the IAFF members and Graney's proposal was approved with fervor. This marked the beginning of a formal bond between the IAFF and MDA. Since then, fire fighters have taken Graney's vision and made it their mission, raising funds a thousand ways: by placing collection jars in stores and restaurants; sponsoring charity softball games, and running auctions. These days their favorite fund raising activity is the "fill the boot" drive at intersections and sports venues.

George Graney, 90, founder of the MDA "Fill the Boot" campaign and past president of Boston, MA Local 718 died in Boston, Massachusetts on December 21, 2004. Graney retired from the fire service in 1969.

Graney's eyes were not strong enough to see the world, but the world could see the splendor of this man's heart that has touched the lives of millions. Graney's life gets richer every day, with blessings of people helped by the IAFF's contributions to MDA.

Graney was honored by IAFF General President Harold Schaitberger at a special ceremony held during the 2004 IAFF Convention in Boston. "He gave a gift to MDA families and our union that has lasted 50 years. With George's work now done, it is our responsibility to make sure that the legacy of the IAFF-MDA relationship continues to grow," Schaitberger said.

The IAFF has emerged as the single largest sponsor of the MDA under the leadership of General President Schaitberger, who is also a Vice President of MDA.

The money raised by the IAFF is used for research and treatments to prolong children's lives. It is spent on braces and wheelchairs, on community health centers, support groups, and summer camps. Just as in their profession, fire fighters are determined to fight the battle against neuromuscular diseases that haunt the faces of innocents.

Bagpipes at Fire Department Funerals

The tradition of bagpipes being played at fire department funerals in the United States goes back over one hundred and fifty years. When the Irish and Scottish immigrated to this country, they brought many of their traditions with them. One of these was the bagpipe, often played at Celtic weddings, funerals and dances.

It wasn't until the great potato famine and massive Irish immigration to the East Coast of the United States that the tradition of the pipes really took hold in fire departments. Factories and shops had signs reading "NINA" meaning No Irish Need Apply. The only jobs they could get were the ones no one else wanted -- jobs that were dirty, dangerous or both -- firefighters and police officers. It was not an uncommon event to have several firefighters killed at a working fire. The Irish firefighters funerals were typical of all Irish funerals-the pipes were played. It was somehow okay for a hardened firefighter to cry at the sound of pipes when his dignity would not let him weep for a fallen comrade.

Those who have been to funerals when bagpipes play know how haunting and mournful the sound of the pipes can be. Before too long, families and friends of non-Irish firefighters began asking for the piper to play for these fallen heroes. The pipes add a special air and dignity to the solemn occasion.

Today, the tradition is universal and not just for the Irish or Scottish. The pipes have come to be a distinguishing feature of a fallen hero's funeral.

Tolling of the Bell

Long before the Internet was invented, or telephones and radios were used across our great nation, fire departments used the telegraph to communicate - using special codes to receive fire alarms from those once-familiar red fire alarm boxes which stood on practically every street corner of America.

When a firefighter was killed, or in the language of the military and public safety: "fell", in the line of duty, the fire alarm office would tap out a special signal. This would be tapped out as five measured dashes - then a pause - then five measured dashes - then a pause - then five more measured dashes.

This came to be called the Tolling of the Bell and was broadcast over the telegraph fire alarm circuits to all station houses in the vicinity. Heard outside on the streets - with the fire department's windows open, the resonating echo was similar to that of fire stations of old where fire alarm gongs sounded the locations of thousands of emergencies throughout the history of our growing country.

This was done for the purpose of notification, and as a sign of honor and respect for all firefighters who had made the ultimate sacrifice in service to their communities. Such symbolism has been a time-honored fire service tradition and is repeated at each service of a fallen firefighter.

Bell Ceremony

The men and women of today’s fire service are confronted with a more dangerous work environment than ever before. We are forced to continually change our strategies and tactics to accomplish our tasks.

Our methods may change, but our goals remain the same as they were in the past, to save lives and to protect property, sometimes at a terrible cost. This is what we do, this is our chosen profession, this is the tradition of the fire fighter.

The fire service of today is ever changing, but is steeped in traditions 200 years old. One such tradition is the sound of a bell.

In the past, as fire fighters began their tour of duty, it was the bell that signaled the beginning of that day’s shift. Throughout the day and night, each alarm was sounded by a bell, which summoned these brave souls to fight fires and to place their lives in jeopardy for the good of their fellow citizen. And when the fire was out and the alarm had come to an end, it was the bell that signaled to all the completion of that call. When a fire fighter had died in the line of duty, paying the supreme sacrifice, it was the mournful toll of the bell that solemnly announced a comrade's passing.

We utilize these traditions as symbols, which reflect honor and respect on those who have given so much and who have served so well. To symbolize the devotion that these brave souls had for their duty, a special signal of three rings, three times each, represents the end of our comrades’ duties and that they will be returning to quarters. And so, to those who have selflessly given their lives for the good of their fellow man, their tasks completed, their duties well done, to our comrades, their last alarm, they are going home.

Fire Fighter's Prayer
When I am called to duty, God 
Wherever flames may rage 
Give me strength to save a life 
Whatever be its age. 
Let me embrace a little child 
Before it is too late 
Or save an older person from 
The horror of that fate. 
Enable me to be alert 
And hear the weakest shout, 
and quickly and efficiently 
To put the fire out. 
I want to fill my calling 
To give the best in me, 
To guard my friend and neighbor 
And protect their property. 
And, if, according to your will, 
While on duty I must answer death’s call; 
Bless with your protecting hand 
My family, one and all