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Firefighter Challenge Coins, Firefighter Patches, Medals, Symbols, Firetrucks And Other Fire Department Traditions

Updated on April 20, 2013

The Fire Department and Firefighters have a long history that is steeped in tradition. Firefighters work in and around these traditions each and every day and many of them and most of the public have no idea what some of these traditions mean or how they started. For instance, some fire houses will wash their tires and wheels after returning from every fire call. That tradition began when fire engines were on horse-drawn carriages that had wooden wheels or wheels with wooden spokes. Those spokes would dry out at hot fires due to the radiant heat, and, if they did not get a regular dousing of water they would become loose and the wheel become unstable, hardly an issue with today's metal wheels.

Learn more about the traditions of the Fire Department by reading some of the explanations below, and feel free to leave comments about other traditions or questions about your local fire department traditions.

Firefighter Patches And The Maltese Cross

The single most recognizable symbol of the fire service is the Maltese Cross. This cross was worn by crusaders in the 11th and 12th centuries who were known as the Knights of St. John. These knights made their base of operations on the Island of Malta, hence the name "Maltese", and were known for their ability to fight and put out the fires caused by their enemies use of burning oil as a weapon. These knights would stitch the cross on their sleeves so they would be known to the other knights as friend during the heat of battle. From this beginning, firefighting became symbolized by the "Maltese Cross" which is present in almost every fire department in the world.

Similar to the first "fire fighters", firefighters today wear a patch on their sleeves to be identified as a member of their department. Most of these patches include the Maltese Cross with other symbols inside the design such as a fire hydrant, a ladder, the Star of Life, and others to describe what type of department they are and what services they provide. Firefighters from all over the world even trade their patches to collect patches from other departments. At important firefighter memorials, such as the 9-11 memorial, you can find boards that have patches from around the world of firefighters who have visited the memorial.

Firefighter Coins And Firefighter Medals

Both relatively new traditions in the Fire Department, Challenge Coins and Medals have two different purposes. The Challenge Coin is given in some departments to its employees to foster a general feeling of brotherhood and comeraderie. The challenge coin began in the military, some say as a means of identification. Today, the rules of the challenge coin are generally used in the fire department when not on duty and when gathered at local pubs or the local union hall.

Fire Department Medals have been given for years by some departments, but are recently being seen in a growing number of cities. The use of these medals is to help encourage firefighters to strive to exhibit the best of the values that the Fire Department stands for. Sometimes these medals are given for acts of valor while fighting fire or working on emergency scenes and other times they are given for years of service or excelling in other areas of service within the Fire Department.

Dalmatians And Red Fire Engines

Two of the most common things people think of when they think "Fire Department" are red fire engines and dalmations. Although most fire departments no longer have dalmations, and many departments have different colors on their engines, these two visual ideas are generally what come to people's minds.

The tradition of having dalmations at the fire department goes back to the days of the horse drawn fire pumper. For years prior to the organized fire service, Dalmatians had been known as a calming influence for horses and a good guard dog for carriages. Those traits made the Dalmatian a great choice for a firehouse pet, as they could keep the spirited "fire horses" calm both while waiting for a fire and while standing at a fire scene for hourse at a time. These dogs were know for running beside or in front of horses pulling fire pumpers, barking as they ran. Some consider the Dalmation to be the first "siren" as in those days the pumper carriage would only have a bell.


The history of red fire engines also goes back to the early days of the organized fire service. As most fire departments in those days were ran by insurance companies and would compete to put out the fire and get paid, fire departments wanted their pumper to be the best looking, brightest, and most expensive looking pumper around. Since "fire engine red" is bright, good looking, and was the most expensive paint available, red was the most sought after color for a fire pumper. As the fire engine took the place of the horse-drawn pumper, red remained the most desirable color. The red engines would stand out amoungst all of the black cars and trucks of the time period.

Today red is still the most used color on fire apparatus, but many departments only use red on part of the truck or none at all. There are departments that have white fire trucks, departments with bright yellow fire trucks, and even departments with multi-colored, flashy looking trucks. Even though all colors are now used on fire trucks, only one color has a shade with "fire engine" in the name.

Bagpipes And The "Tolling Of The Bell"

Two of the most solemn images in the fire service in anyone's mind would have to be the playing of the bagpipes and the "Tolling of the Bell" at firefighter funerals and memorials. The Tolling of the Bell began as a morse code tapped out on fire alarm telegraphs. This message would be transmitted to the closest fire houses and around the fire station all would hear the fire gong ring out to let people know that a firefighter "fell" in the line of duty. Today, a large bell is rung at fire department funerals and memorials to remember those who gave their lives in the fire service.

Bagpipes have long been a part of the tradition of the fire service, but did not begin until the large influx of Scottish and Irish immigrants to the USA during the Great Potato Famine. These immigrants were not accepted as employees in most jobs, but found a home in the police and fire services. As their bagpipes were played for Irish and Scottish funerals and became accepted in the fire service, it became a staple for all fire department funerals and memorial.

Can you think of some other Fire Service tradition? Let me know in my Comment section!

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