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Fire Department Traditions
When we hear
the word tradition it brings to mind many things. Arguably, probably every one
of us is touched by at least one tradition. Many are family oriented, such as
how we celebrate a Holiday, the annual family reunion cookout, or how we are
taught to treat others – these are all examples of traditions. In the fire service we have many traditions as well.
From the first moment a new cadet (rookie or "probie") is
taken into the department “family” they are introduced to fire service
The man who
established the first volunteer fire department also invented bifocals,
wrote and printed Poor Richard’s Almanac, studied electricity and helped draft
the Declaration of Independence. His name was Benjamin Franklin. The first
volunteer fire department began in Philadelphia in 1736.
Franklin often wrote about the dangers of fire and the need for organized fire
protection. He was dissatisfied with Boston’s Mutual Fire Societies (also known
as "Fire Clubs") because
the "Fire Clubs" existed solely for the protection of its members, not the community at
large. Franklin wanted organizations that would battle all fires, regardless of
whose property was burning.
After an extensive fire in Philadelphia in 1736, Franklin established the first
all-volunteer fire brigade which was known as The Union Fire company which was
comprised of 30 volunteers. As the idea of volunteer fire
brigades gained popularity, additional companies were formed in Philadelphia.
Each of the companies paid for their own equipment and located it throughout
town at strategic places.
Other famous Americans who served as volunteer firefighters include: George
Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Samuel
Adams, John Hancock, Paul Revere, Alexander Hamilton,
John Jay, John Barry, Aaron Burr, Benedict Arnold,
James Buchanan and Millard Fillmore.
Volunteer firefighters played and continue to play an invaluable role in
protecting lives and property.
We take great pride in the design of our department patch. Each element of
our patch has special meaning. KFD members wear this patch with honor.
addition to being a symbol of our great nation, the eagle at the top of the
patch symbolizes vigilance.
The center, or heart, of the
patch is the traditional Maltese Cross. The Maltese Cross represents charity,
loyalty, gallantry, generosity to friend and foe,
dexterity of service, and protection of the weak.
It is also carried to honor those who carried the insignia before us.
More information about the Maltese Cross can be found in the
next section below.
The shape of the patch is a
shield which represents protection from danger.
The shield's background is white. This represents that firefighters must
be of good character and temperate in habits. The gold trim symbolizes
that firefighters, like gold, will withstand trial by fire and still remain. Thus, the shield
is a symbol of protection, character, and strength.
In the center of the
cross is a traditional "scramble". It is a collection of items that represent
readiness. The speaking trumpets represent leadership and are from
the days when fire officers would use the speaking
trumpet to direct personnel. The helmet represents safety. The ladder represents the specialized tools of the firefighting
trade. Combined, the "scramble" symbolizes total
readiness. The color red behind the scramble symbolizes our enemy -
fire - and represents the courage of men and women who battle one
of the deadliest perils of mankind. It is the fire inside of each one of
us that gives us the courage to battle the flames before us.
The 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
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
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.
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.
the 1980s, the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms led the
way in reintroducing dogs to active roles in the fire service by training the
first accelerant-detecting canine. A yellow Laborador named Nellie was the
first dog trained as part of a pilot program in 1984. Nellie's performance was
validated by the American Academy of Forensic Scienses. In 1986, ATF
established the National Canine Accelerant Detection Program. Mattie, the
first "operational" canine was deployed that September. Both dogs were
acquired from guide dog programs.
Canines can pinpoint traces
that escape electronic detection. Mechanical hydrocarbon detectors are
sensitive to gasoline components in parts per million (ppm). The smallest
amount detectable by dogs is .01 micro liters, or 1,000th of a
drop, of 50% evaporated gasoline, 100% of the time. Also, a canine can
differentiate between products of combustions and similar chemical gases
found at fire scenes from true accelerants, which mechanical detectors
Canines are more adaptable and
more accurate than mechanical equipment. This accuracy can help pinpoint the
location of accelerants in a shorter time, thereby reducing the field time of
investigators searching and processing a fire scene. The use of canines can
reduce the number of samples that need to be collected and tested. It is also
documented that samples submitted from canine teams for laboratory analysis
result in a positive test for ignitable liquids over 90% of the time, compared
to 30% for the investigators alone.*
Red Fire Engines, Black Cabs, and Green Lights
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
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.
Kemah VFD fire engines have been, are, and
will always be red. On or most recent fire engine purchase, Engine-1, we
have decided to shift to the Chicago-famed, black over red paint scheme. The
first closed-cab chief's cars in Chicago had black canvas tops which would not
take paint. Someone among the brass liked the appearance, so as new closed-cab
apparatus came onto the roster, the cabs of the fire engines were painted black.
You may also notice the green light on
Engine-1's "RotoRay". This is also a traditional Chicago-style fire
engine feature. Commissioner Albert Goodrich of the Chicago Fire
Department (1927 - 1931) had a nautical background. He applied the marine scheme
(red light on port, green light on starboard) to fire apparatus, and the idea
became a tradition of the Chicago Fire Department. It is also used to mark the
bay doors at most Chicago fire stations. Kemah, being a coastal town,
decided that this was a good tradition to adopt for all future fire engines.
And while we're on the subject of engines, a temporarily lost
but now returning tradition in the fire department is the inclusion of
traditional mechanical wailing sirens on fire trucks. There was
a period, years ago, when designers started putting "ambulance sirens" on
fire apparatus. These were basically electronic noisemakers that were
run through a powerful exterior P.A. speaker. Thank goodness we are
back to having huge mechanical 5000+ amp draw fire apparatus sirens back on
fire apparatus! The theory goes, if the lights don't dim on the rig
when you slam your foot on the siren button, forget it!*
*This section excerpted from
Shamrocks Associated With
Fire Department Truck Companies
dear, and did ye hear the news that's goin' round
The shamrock is by law forbid to grow on Irish ground!
No more St. Patrick's Day we'll keep, his colors can't be seen
For there's a cruel law ag'in the Wearin' o' the Green ..."
the Irish and Scottish immigrated to this country following the great potato
famine, they brought many of their traditions with them. Work for these
immigrants was often very difficult to find. Factories and shops displayed
signs reading "NINA" meaning No Irish Need Apply. The only jobs they could get
were the civil service jobs that were dirty, dangerous or both -- firefighters
and police officers -- jobs that no one else wanted.
Irish-American firefighters began affixing
images of the shamrock to their apparatus and their person not only as a display
of Irish-American pride, but also as an inconspicuous message to their fellow
Irishmen advertising that the fire service is a place that can't discriminate
Today, by tradition, most truck companies have
a shamrock somewhere in their logo, on their apparatus, or on their helmet.
Irish-American firefighters usually display a shamrock somewhere on their gear,
as well, to channel the "luck of the Irish".
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 red 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 my 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.*
Kemah Fire Department
helmet colors generally indicate the following:
A helmet is a very personal
thing to a firefighter. Full-fledged firefighters are allowed to keep the
helmet issued to them by the department.
Rookies wear yellow until they
become a full-fledged firefighter. The bright-yellow makes it easier for
officers and more experienced members to monitor the rookies in order to keep
*Excerpted from 'Fire
Department History, Terminology, and Tactics' by Captain Mica Calfee
The term "First Water" actually
dates back to the 1800's when fire departments actually competed with one another.
When two departments were in
the same area, the town would often only pay the first fire department on scene,
while the second received nothing. In other areas it was a matter of
pride. The first department to put water on the fire would claim "First Water"
and, in a way, get credit for fighting that fire. Some departments even hired
young kids who would race to a fire on foot and throw a single bucket of water
on the flames. This usually did very little or nothing to fight the fire, but it
would earn that department the right to claim "First Water".
The phrase is still used in some areas today. When a department is called out to
a fire they will often refer to three events: Dispatch time, On scene time, and
time of First Water, the moment when the first fire stream actually begins
fighting the fire.
Star of Life
as physicians have the caduceus, emergency medical service personnel have the
Star of Life. The six-barred cross represents the six system functions of
emergency medical services: Detection, Reporting, Response,
On Scene Care, Care in Transit, and Transfer to Definitive Care.
The snake and the staff in the
center of the Star of Life portray the staff of Asclepius who, according to
Greek mythology, was the son of Apollo, the god of light, truth, and prophecy.
According to legend, Asclepius learned the art of healing from Cheron, the
centaur. But Zeus, king of the gods, was fearful that, with Asclepius'
knowledge, men might be rendered immortal. Rather than have this occur, Zeus
killed Asclepius with a thunderbolt. Asclepius was worshipped as a god and
people slept in his temples, as it was rumored that, in death, he effected cures
of prescribed remedies to the sick during their dreams.
Asclepius is usually shown in a
standing position, dressed in a long cloak, holding a staff with a serpent
coiled around it. The staff has come to represent medicine's most recognized
symbol. In the caduceus, used by physicians, the staff is winged, with two
serpents intertwined. Although it holds no known medical relevance, it
represents the magic wand of the Greek deity, Hermes, messenger of the gods.
In Numbers 21:9, the Bible
also makes reference to a serpent on a staff. "So Moses made a bronze snake and put
it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze
snake, he lived."
On September 23, 1973, NHTSA adopted a
symbol which clearly and distinctively identifies emergency care within the
total spectrum of the Emergency Medical Care System. The "Star of Life" had
already been identified by the medical profession as a medical emergency
symbol, and its use encouraged by the American Medical Association.*
On September 14, 1977, the Commissioner of
Patents and Trademarks issued to the Administrator, National Highway Traffic
Safety Administration, Certificate of Registration No. 1,058,022, for the "Star
of Life" symbol as a certification mark.*
Among other specifications, the memorandum to
NHTSA stated that the Star of Life should be:
On shoulder patches to be worn only by
personnel having satisfactorily completed any of the DOT training courses, or
approved equivalent and those personnel who, by title and function,
administer, directly supervise, or otherwise participate in all or part of a
national, state, or community EMS program or service in accordance with DOT
criteria for Standard 11 which included the EMD.*
This included a specific color scheme for
the Star of Life patch to be worn by emergency communications personnel once
certified as an EMD.*
*DOT Pamphlet DOT HS 803 721, January 1979
Saint Florian, the patron saint of firefighters, was an officer
in the Roman army during the third century. Saint Florian had converted to
Christianity but kept his new faith a secret to avoid persecution. When ordered
to execute a group of Christians during the persecutions of Diocletian, Saint
Florian professed his faith and refused to follow the order. He then had a
stone tied around his neck and he was thrown into a river where he drowned.
Florian is said to have once stopped an entire town from burning by throwing a
single bucket of water onto the fire. Saint Florian is the patron saint of
firefighters, chimney sweeps, barrel-makers, soap boilers, harvests, Austria,
Poland and others.
Bagpipes at Fire
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.
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.
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.
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.
from Ohio Fire Chief, July 1997
Department Pipes and Drums
What is an Emerald Society you ask? Emerald Societies are
social organizations, typically open to both professional firefighters and
supporters of fire departments, that promote a fraternal spirit among public
safety officers of Irish Ancestry. Societies are typically open to all members
of the public safety community who are of Irish descent who posses the spirit
to foster and further this heritage and a strong desire to help those in need.
In addition to supporting charities, Emerald Societies also
raise funds to help members and area firefighters (and their families) in
times of need. Emerald Societies encourage active participation in community
activities and strive to positively impact the communities they serve.
Emerald Societies honor fallen heroes sworn to protect and
serve their fellow man and are often responsible for providing pipers to play
at firefighter memorials.
Emerald Societies also serve police agencies.
Vulcan Societies are fraternal/social associations of black
professional firefighters. Vulcan Societies are formed mainly to recruit
African-American (and other) minorities to the fire service and to ensure the
promotion of minorities from within the ranks. Vulcans are renown for
their support of minority fire fighters facing legal action. In
addition, Vulcans actively raise funds for community organizations.
Vulcan Society founded in NYC
Williams was the third black male to join the New York Fire Department. Wesley
was appointed January 10, 1919 and assigned to Engine 55 in Manhattan. This
was at a time when discrimination and segregation were the rule. The day young
Wesley entered the company, the captain took a roll call, thanked the men for
their support and left. He retired from the Fire Department the same day
because he did not want the stigma of a black man in his company. The rest of
the requested transfers for the same reason. Fire Department officials imposed
a one year moratorium on transfers in hope that the men would adjust to
He endured discrimination at its worse. Despite this, he
proved himself repeatedly on the fireground and stood his ground at the
station. Williams was eventually promoted to Lieutenant in 1927, Captain in
1934 and Battalion Chief in 1938.
By 1940, there were 40 Black men in the Fire Department,
all facing similar problems. Chief Williams suggested the men organize. The
Vulcan Society was born.
In 1944 the Vulcan Society forced a public hearing before
the New York City Council to expose some of the segregated practices. As a
result, a clause was passed in the regulations banning racial practices in the
Fire Department. Wesley Williams never held office in the Vulcan Society but
was the spirited force behind the Society. Wesley Williams died at 86 years on
July 3rd, 1984.
Excerpted from Vulcan Society Inc
Historical Note: The first recorded female firefighter in the
United States was an African-American named Molly Williams who worked on
Oceanus Company No. 11 in the 1780s.
Excerpted from Boston Society of
Vulcans of Mass Inc
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
When I am called to duty, God, whenever
flames may rage;
Give me strength to save some life, whatever be its age.
Help 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 every neighbor and protect their property.
And if, according to my fate, I am to lose my life;
Please bless with your protecting hand my children and my wife.
Other traditions in the fire service happen on a larger
scale. Some of these include sending department
representatives to the funeral of a firefighter lost in the line of duty in a
neighboring community, in the next state, or clear across the country. It
doesn’t matter whether we personally knew the person or not, its just tradition
that we show our respects towards our fellow brother or sister in the fire
service. These heroes paid the ultimate sacrifice of dying in the line of duty.
We remember these individuals, we memorialize their
lives, and thank them for their service.
Related Link: KFD's
There are some things from the past that many
old-timers recall fondly but for one reason or another (many due to safety)
have been discontinued. These include:
Rubber pull-up boots
No air packs
15-minute air packs (there was nothing like
knowing you had about 8-10 minutes inside)
Breathing off the nozzle
Bells (this are starting to reappear)
Protein foam (made from ground up animal
Riding the roof of the cab
Riding the hose bed
Riding the tailboard and the sides of the rig
Brass firehouse poles
*This section excerpted from
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