By Tom Kiurski
Almost any fire apparatus you see today has a Maltese cross on it. Firefighters wear badges that also bear the shape of the Maltese cross. The Maltese cross is the very familiar red center circle with four shapes emanating from the center. Many people ask us what the connection is between the fire service and that Maltese cross. The following should help to answer that question.
This emblem had its beginning during the Crusades and was the symbol of the knights of that period. The knights were designing a shield that wouldn’t be too cumbersome while riding horses into battle. The cross design was adopted and put into use by the early Knights of Malta. The Knights of Malta became a charitable, non-military organization during the 11th and 12th centuries, providing aid to the sick and poor and helping to set up numerous hospitals. They would later take up arms and join with the Knights of the Crusades in an effort to win back the Holy Land.
This new breed of knight was known as a flamboyant lot. They dressed in regal fashion to show their colors in a uniform manner. Large crimson-colored capes were worn over the suits of armor. Not only were the capes symbolic, but they also helped provide a defense against one of the newest weapons of war–fire. As invading forces attacked a castle, the defenders would throw containers of naphtha and other flammable liquids. Once the armies were soaked, a torch would be hurled at the attackers, igniting their fuel-soaked clothing.
With their fellow troops engulfed in fire, the Knights of Malta would approach on horseback, rip off their capes, and use them to extinguish the flames on their burning fellow fighters.
As a reward for their bravery, the cross worn by those Knights was decorated and inscribed by their admirers. It came to be known as the most honorable badge of acclaim that could adorn a uniform.
The legend of the Maltese cross grew as it became associated with the admirable qualities of loyalty, bravery and defender of the weak. Today, firefighters across the country wear the time-honored Maltese cross on their uniform and apparatus.
Tom Kiurski is a lieutenant, a paramedic, and the director of fire safety education for Livonia (MI) Fire & Rescue. His book, Creating a Fire-Safe Community: A Guide for Fire Safety Educators (Fire Engineering, 1999), is a guide for bringing the safety message to all segments of the community efficiently and economically.