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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 traditions.

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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.

KFD Patch

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.

KFD PatchIn 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 protectioncharacter, 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

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.

The Dalmatian Dog

Dalmatian DogOne 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.

Arson Dogs

Ashley - Dallas Fire & RescueIn 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 cannot.*

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.*

*Excerpted from

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 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.

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.

KFD Engine-1
KFD Engine-1

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

"O Paddy 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 ..."

When 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 against them.

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".

Helmet 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 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:

  • White - Chief

  • Red - Company Officer

  • Black - Firefighter

  • Yellow - Rookie/Probationary Member

  • Blue - Medical

  • Green - Safety

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 them safe.

*Excerpted from 'Fire Department History, Terminology, and Tactics' by Captain Mica Calfee

First Water

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

Star of LifeJust 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

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 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.

Excerpted from Ohio Fire Chief, July 1997

Related Link: Kemah Fire Department Pipes and Drums

Emerald Societies

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

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.

Excerpted from Northeastern University Archives

Vulcan Society founded in NYC

Wesley 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 Wesley.

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 FDNY

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 fallen firefighter.

Firefighter's Prayer

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.

Author unknown

Other Traditions

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 Memorial Page

Outdated Traditions

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

  • Beacon rays

  • Bells (this are starting to reappear)

  • Plectrons

  • House sirens

  • Navy nozzles

  • Foam powder

  • Protein foam (made from ground up animal matter)

  • 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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Kemah Fire Department
P.O. Box 962, Kemah, TX 77565
Physical Address: 905 Hwy 146 | MAP
Phone:(281) 538-5727  Fax:(281)538-8221
Proudly serving Clear Lake Shores, Kemah, and the Lazy Bend communities for over 50 years!