Fire Service Traditions
The Maltese Cross
The Maltese Cross is known around the world as a symbol of the fire service. 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. To help identify friend from foe during the fighting, they needed a symbol that could identify themselves. 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.
Star of Life
Just 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: Detecting, Reporting, Response, On Scene Care, Care in Transit, and Transfer to Definitive Care. The snake and the staff in the center of the star 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 worshiped 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 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 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.
Red 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 to 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 the 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.
The 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.
Arson and Search and Rescue Dogs
In the late 1980s, the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms led the way in reintroducing dogs to the active roles in the fire service by training the first accelerant-detecting canine. A yellow Labrador 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 Sciences. 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 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.
Bill and Jean Syrotuck created the American Rescue Association (ARDA), which is the oldest group of its type, in 1972. The organization brought together various rescue dog groups that had formed at the state level and gave them a forum to trade training techniques and information. In this way, the ARDA was able to help train and to provide capable search and rescue dogs to those who needed them. Similar organizations have popped up in Europe and across the world, where search dogs are most readily needed and seen. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has also started training and putting to use rescue dogs in first response roles in disasters, everything from tornados in Oklahoma to the 9/11 terrorist attacks to the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans.
Despite all the technological and scientific advances, such as GPS, satellite images, and robots, dogs are still one of the best tools of any search and rescue (SAR) team. While the victims of a disaster undergoes an almost eternal nightmare hoping that somebody finds him, SAR dogs are just playing a fun game. These game obsessed dogs live to play the “fetch the human” game. Their reward is a funny tug’o war game. Being alive is the victims reward. SAR dogs are capable of saving hundreds of human lives because of their powerful sense of smell, their exceptional hearing, rigorous training and the amazing bond between them and their handlers. However not everything is joy in the world of search and rescue dogs. Although these canine specialists are trained by means of games and rewards, they could be retired before time because of physical fatigue and damages caused during their noble task.
Although any healthy dog has well developed senses of smell and hearing, a search and rescue dog must fulfill some additional requirements. SAR dogs must be agile and resistant enough to deal with typical difficulties of search and rescue activities. On the other hand these dogs must not be so big that its size makes the recuse task even more difficult. A very big dog can become an additional difficulty when the team has to rappel down buildings or mountainsides or while traveling in small helicopters or boats.
In addition, SAR dogs must be exceptionally motivated to search during long periods under the most unfavorable conditions. SAR dogs must be perfectly socialized to people and other animals. In addition, they must be accustomed to work or play under stressful situations such as among crowds of people, when other animals are present, and while there are strange and loud noises. Air scent dogs don’t follow a victims path. Instead they smell the air seeking for human scent. These dogs are used to find people buried under rubble, people buried in landslides, etc.
A helmet is a very personal thig to a firefighter. Gainesville Fire Department helmet colors indicate the following:
- White – Fire Chief
- Red – Company Officer
- Black – Firefighter
- Yellow – Rookie/Probationary Member
Rookies will 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.
Bagpipes at Fire Department Funerals
The tradition of bagpipes being played at a fire department funeral in the United States dates 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. 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. Those who have ever been to funerals when bagpipes play knows 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. 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 in 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 more measured dashes. This came to be known as 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 as a sign of honor and respect for all firefighters who have 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.
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 and 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, harvest, Australia, Poland and others.
Other traditions in the fire service happen in 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, it’s 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 memorize their lives, and thank them for their service.