Embracing Traditions in the Modern Fire Service

Transfer of command ceremony

Article by Tom Warren

Photo by Tim Olk

Today’s fire service makes use of some of the most sophisticated and technologically advanced equipment available. My short 33-year career witnessed advances that both protected firefighters as made their work more efficient and safer. When I started my career, it seemed that things were very far advanced compared to some of the old trucks and equipment found in the closets and fire stations throughout the city. Yet today’s firefighters may look at the equipment we relied on 30 years ago and wonder how we ever put out any fires.

The advances in equipment, technology, and procedures are staggering and modern firefighters embrace this evolution, knowing that there is still more to come in their careers. This latest generation of firefighters was born in the technology era, and these members may expect nothing else but a continuation of technological advances.

Equipment such as thermal imaging cameras can locate victims very quickly and with pinpoint accuracy. When compared to a firefighter searching a room with one hand on the outside wall and swinging an ax or pole on the floor in an attempt to locate a victim, it seems impossible that we ever found any victims. The high-tech fabrics used for our personal protective equipment (PPE) are much better than the rubber coats, aluminum helmets, and three-quarter boots that were once standard issue. Portable radios and PASS devices are now part of every firefighter’s standard equipment, where once the only portable radio on the fireground was reserved for the chief and was the size of a small suitcase.  Fire apparatus is designed with the firefighter’s safety in mind with features like air conditioning, sound proofing, seat belts, powerful engines and braking systems, and communication and computer equipment at the officer’s fingertips.

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Through the efforts of numerous safety organizations, labor organizations, and professional organizations, most fire departments operate using specific guidelines or standard operating procedures, avoiding confusion and providing accountability and safer fireground operations. This single procedural development enables every firefighter to understand what is expected of him or her as well as every other firefighter operating on the fireground. Adopting the standard training levels for firefighters (National Fire Protection Association 1001, Standard for Fire Fighter Professional Qualifications) and training to these levels means that firefighters are fully prepared to assume their role in their fire department. Another historic development in the fire service is the adoption of the National Incident Management System. This operational guide provides a systematic structure to achieve operational objectives at any type of emergency. We can now respond to any incident in any jurisdiction and know with certainty where we fit in, what our mission is, and whom we report to. Firefighters and fire officers can enhance their knowledge with professional development through programs offered at the National Fire Academy as well as degree programs at many colleges and universities.

There clearly has been an unstoppable march of progress in the fire service, allowing today’s firefighters to respond to emergencies armed with the best equipment, technology, training and operational guidelines than ever before.

As much as every young firefighter entering the fire service today appreciates and expects the latest in technology, equipment, and operational oversight, it seems that all young firefighters have a thirst for the history and traditions of the fire service and of those who came before them. There is no other occupation that is as steeped in tradition and history. Firefighters cherish this historical connection with the firefighters and fires that came before them. In the movie “Backdraft,” there is a scene where some young firefighters are in the firehouse and on the wall behind them hangs a banner that says, “Chicago Fire Department, 150 years of Tradition Unimpeded by Progress.” This is at the heart of the passion that firefighters feel for their chosen profession, a passion that likely does not exist in any other profession.  Firefighters feel this connection to the past very deeply and wish to carry on these fire service traditions in their careers. As their careers progress and they become mentors to younger firefighters, they are anxious to pass these traditions on to these next generation.  

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When firefighters start their career, they begin to see the history of their departments as the instructors begin the training program, which always includes the history of the fire service. The instructors will talk about their experiences, and are usually full of war stories of days gone by and the characters that make up the fire department. It does not take long before new firefighters want to be part of this family of firefighters and hear all the colorful stories of their department and beyond. They are anxious to take their place in the history of the fire department they have joined.

New firefighters are always curious about how Dalmatians became firehouse mascots. At some point, the question will come up and an instructor will tell the young firefighters that when horses were used to pull the steamers and hose wagons, the Dalmatian dogs were used to keep the horses calm while responding to fires. The Dalmatians would run around the responding horses and scare away other animals that would bother the horses. These Dalmatians were friendly dogs and bonded with the firefighters and horses alike.  We all are aware that there is no need for a Dalmatian with today’s fire apparatus, yet we still see them in many firehouses, and they are great mascots when firefighters visit local schools. (1)

Our traditions can be traced to Rome, where the first recognized firefighting force was organized by August Caesar in 23 BC and was called Familia Publica.  This firefighting force was made up of slaves and had limited success. Something every fire department has in one form or another is the Maltese Cross. Every department uses this symbol in some way, either in the design of their department insignia or badge. The origins of the Maltese Cross date back to the time of the Crusades. The Saracens would defend themselves by throwing glass containers filled with naphtha at the attacking Christian Knights. Once the Christian Knights were covered with naphtha, the Saracens would throw flaming torches at the Christian Knights, causing them to be burned inside their armor.  The Christian Knights were awarded a cross to recognize their bravery during these attacks. The crosses awarded became known as the Maltese Cross. This symbol of bravery and honor continues today. (1)

In the time before radios became commonplace on the fireground, orders and direction by the chief were sent via trumpets or speaking trumpets, which is simply a megaphone-type tool. It was the chief who used these trumpets at fires, and they became very ornate and the symbol of authority.  In today’s fire service, the trumpets have been replaced with radio communication, but this symbol of authority is still part of the modern fire service. The trumpets are now used to designate the rank of fire officers. One trumpet designates a lieutenant, two trumpets designate a captain, and gold-crossed trumpets designate a Chief. The Chief of Department is designated with five crossed trumpets. Firefighters and fire officers study long and hard to earn the honor to wear trumpets on their collar.

In firehouses across the country, the walls are covered with pictures of major fires that their fire company responded to and of the apparatus that was assigned to that fire company over the years. One can also find pictures of the members of that fire company dating back many years. Gold- or silver-plated fire equipment used many years ago can be found mounted on a plaque and hanging on the walls. Newspaper articles depicting heroic efforts of the members of that fire company can also be found framed and hanging on the walls.

The fire apparatus, more commonly referred to, as “the rig,” is a moving tribute to the history of a fire company. The rig is always kept in an impressively pristine condition. The company numbers are usually displayed on all four sides of the rig and possibly on the roof for the aerial photographs. Most fire companies have a logo or slogan that defines the heritage of the fire company: “Screaming Eagles,” “The Pride of Federal Hill,” “The Nut House,” “Broad Street Bullies,” or “La Casa Grande” to name a few. These logos are an important part of the fire company and they distinguish it from other fire companies. The logos contribute to the morale and camaraderie found in the best fire companies and can be found on the firehouse itself (inside and outside), the rig, and on patches. Firefighters are fiercely proud of these logos.

I can’t think of another profession that openly displays its history and traditions as the fire service does. Young people line up and take difficult written and physical tests to become part of the fire service aware of all these traditions and deep history the fire service embraces. They are very anxious to become part of it. At the other end of a firefighters career it is equally difficult for firefighters to leave this profession when the time comes.


1. Introduction to Fire Protection and Emergency Services, Robert Klinoff


Tom WarrenThomas N. Warren has more than 40 years of experience in the fire service in both career and volunteer departments. He retired as assistant chief of department of the Providence (RI) Fire Department after 33 years of service. Presently he is a faculty member at Bristol Community College in the Fire Science Technology Program teaching a variety of subjects in the fire science discipline. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in fire science from Providence College, an Associate’s Degree in business administration from the Community College of Rhode Island and a Certificate in Occupational Safety and Health from Roger Williams University.


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