In many organizations throughout the country members are aware of the organizations history and traditions. This awareness provides the employee with a sense of direction, purpose and belonging. But nowhere else is tradition such a part of the daily routine as in the American Fire service.
In the Fire Service blatant tradition and the multifaceted role that it plays within the institution are on display daily so as to become expected by the public, and traditions dominate, drive and dictate the thinking and actions of the institution as a whole as well as on individual levels.
"Tradition" is the act of remembering and this display of practicing, reveling in and participation among these traditions provides a sense of purpose and direction to the members of the fire department from the highest ranking chief officer to the newest recruit within the ranks. A purpose and direction that provides guidance in addition to instilling resolve for the many difficult, hair raising and sometimes heart stopping situations with which firefighters must contend.
Looking back and embracing tradition affords each member the ability to see where the organization has come from and the trials and tribulations together with the solutions to those dilemmas, experienced by predecessors, while insuring guidance for the future. As the poets and historians over the years have said, “One cannot know where they are going if one doesn’t know where they have been”.
In many of today’s fire departments the tradition of testing the alarm or notification system is performed every morning of every day. And though the computer systems would certainly alert the dispatcher of a system malfunction, rendering such daily tests unnecessary, the tradition continues. In so doing firefighters are reminded, if even only subliminally, of the absolute necessity of maintaining a constant state of readiness with themselves and their equipment, and the subtle reminder is given to each member that it is time to perform the “daily checks”.
Virtually all fire departments issue a breast badge to every firefighter as well as collar insignias to officers. This tradition had its roots in the necessity of the community needing to identify a member of the fire department as a trusted member of the city and also as a way of announcing to all visitors and residents of that community that the individual wearing the badge was endowed by the town fathers with certain powers and that the wearer is the absolute tangible aspect of the city’s authority, courage and mercy.
In our modern society and the fire service, the breast badge is another antiquated tradition that is still adhered to because it is something that has come to be expected by the firefighters along with the general public. And though identity cards with a member’s photo electronically inserted on the face and a magnetic swipe strip on the back have replaced the need for the ornate breast badge, and though the wearing of a breast badge on a fatigue/station uniform is impractical given the nature of contemporary personal protective equipment, the diminutive, elaborately designed, shinny breast badge is still issued. Why, because it matters. It is important and is the symbol we have all come to expect.
The breast badge is given at the completion of the fire academy phase and at promotion ceremonies. Badges symbolize not only the community’s authority and trust but also individual accomplishment and the characteristics associated with the public perception of the heroic fireman manning a post that provides a lookout for those watching against any threat to the safety and security of the souls within the community.
Some fire service traditions serve no other purpose than to instill a sense of identity while having their true meaning shrouded in the mist of time. An example of this lost meaning is in painting fire trucks red.
Many firefighters today have attempt to answer the question, “Why are fire trucks red?” with the oversimplified response of it having to do with visibility and traffic, and yet this is a complete falsehood as attested by the fact that horse draw and hand towed fire apparatus from over a century ago was also painted red emblazoned with the same ornate gold leaf scroll work just as today’s apparatus is. There are many answers to this question, most of them sounding somewhat legitimate, while the absolute truth remains just out of reach.
The answer today as to why fire trucks are painted red is simple- because they always have been. A red fire truck is a tradition so interwoven into our society that when fire trucks are painted higher visibility colors other than red some people, especially drivers on the road, have difficulty in actually seeing or recognizing the apparatus simply because their mind, reinforced by tradition, has told them that they should be looking for red trucks because fire trucks are supposed to be red.
And some traditions in the fire service are just so improper and outmoded in their nature as to be inexplicable in their continuation, such as the systemized, institutionalized harassment of new members.
This institutionalized conduct is akin to behavior that is seen in prisons and street gangs that rank in new members. The irresponsible nature of this practice is so destructive and counterintuitive to the development of a new employee becoming an integral member of a fire company as to outweigh any perceived benefit. And despite its insidiousness, practitioners continue to perpetuate the tradition of hazing with the same answer that explains away fire trucks being painted red- because it has always been that way.
The relinquishing of the tradition of hazing, like many traditions, has been met with obstinate resistance in spite of the federal laws that now make the conduct of hazing illegal in our society.
Tradition in the fire service can be a two edged sword in that any attempt to stamp out obsolete, dangerous and spiteful traditions can inadvertently destroy positive, pleasant and useful ones and conversely; while upholding positive, useful traditions one may inadvertently endorse unfavorable tradition and therein lies the paradox. Some traditions are good; some are bad while others are just there as signposts of the past, something we need in order to see the road to the future. The old expression is, "You won't know where you're going if you don't remember where you've been". The idea of tradition harkens back to the sign in the firehouse that reads, “150 years of tradition unimpeded by progress”. And I like that idea. Hold on to good traditions. Understand them and where they came from, explain them to the rookies and the public; this will help people better understand who we are and maybe we will better understand ourselves.
Holding on to our traditions is a good thing in an ever-changing world. The tradition of remembering probably started long before Homer wrote about recalling the great heroes like Achilles and Hector. "Tradition" is the act of remembering and this provides stability, meaning and a sense of direction. Tradition can be a distracter too. And once in a while it can lead us down a misguided path. Being a custodian of our traditions is at best a careful balancing act but, we should always remember where we came from.
Thank you Mike, well put. Tradition is why I am here, and why my father and uncle were here. The tradition to serve, the tradition of family, the tradition of pride,ownership and courage. Our predecessors built these traditions and they have, for better (or for worse in some cases) held up through time. It is a great feeling to recognize these traditions are strong today. Visiting stations while on a road trip, or seeing a FD T-shirt and taking the opportunity to chat. Sitting at the firehouse after dinner and sharing stories and knowledge to whatever degree. The occasional pranks. All good times. And, of course, most importantly,working together for the best outcome of whatever it is we may respond to. Thank you to all in the great family of the Fire Service, past and present.