I used to be the guy, like a lot of guys I think, who quietly resisted wearing button up shirts on the job - ever. They were hot, stuffy, and not “cool” like the navy blue t-shirts with the big white letters on the back. When it came to my Class-A uniform, I would avoid almost any situation that would require me wearing it. I didn’t do it in a subversive sense, but I did harbor a little bit of fear of dress uniforms in general. I didn’t really feel like I fit-in when wearing the uniform, and I didn’t want it to show. I certainly didn’t want to look like a rookie. While I was proud, at the same time I was very self-conscious in the higher classes of the uniform to say the least.
However, as I grew in seniority and rank, my perspective changed a lot. I would even say a complete paradigm shift has occurred. Do I still like my t-shirt for comfort? Absolutely! And the duty polo shirt is a natural crossover between a cotton t-shirt and a polyester uniform shirt. They are comfortable, cool, stretchy, and look nice with the embroidered badge, the name on the breast, and the lettering on the back.
However, nowadays when I do put on my uniform button-up shirt with the badge and collar insignia, and when I do put on my Class-A uniform, I have a renewed sense of pride in my career, my brothers and sisters on the job who are also wearing the uniform, and I truly appreciate what the uniform stands for in the public’s eyes. I get a sense of comfort from it.
As a battalion chief who used to be in charge of the training division in my department, I’ve heard every excuse and complaint in the book for not wanting to wear the uniform when reporting to the training academy for continuing education, which is a regulation in my department. When I was a captain and before, I may have even forwarded some of that type of sentiment. The uniform pants are sweaty, the shirts have limited flexibility and don’t breathe at all. The neck tie is always a challenge to a kid who grew up in the country and only wore them to funerals and weddings, if then. Many firefighters can be heard saying to this day, “If we could just wear our uniform shorts and t-shirts, everyone would be better off.”
While there is some validity to that statement, including comfort, hygiene, and improved performance in hands-on activities, that argument misses the point. The point is, that when you come through the academy for the first time as a new hire, you are groomed to wear the uniform properly and professionally, with pride. While there, you are indoctrinated into a society where you gain appreciation (or should) for those who wore the uniform before you and for those who will wear it beside you. You are welcomed into a family who will exchange their well-being and even their lives for you, because you chose this uniform-wearing profession with them, and gave them the same oath. You gain a sense of belonging to a uniform-wearing department that you call your own. When you put the uniform on, you become something larger than yourself.
From that point on, the tradition holds, that you should never enter those academy doors without properly displaying the regulated uniform. It should be a matter of pride to walk the academy halls wearing your uniform, and to make sure that all others walking those halls do the same. It should be a matter of pride to pass inspection, and to inspect others who will be working beside you. This translates to turnout gear as well. Coat, helmet, hood, boots, pants, gloves, face piece, P.A.T., all in good working order, clean and ready for training. And, you should never let a peer arrive at the academy anything less than fully compliant. If not, you drop what you are doing to assist them in becoming compliant. That’s just the way it is, the way it should be. The mark of a professional firefighter, after all, is the attention to detail he or she will pay to make sure things are left right. Nerve racking? Hell yeah!
I spoke to Captain Dustin Guzman of the Omaha Fire Department’s Honor Guard who always takes great pride in his uniform, and great pride in the job. He said that his perspective on pride in the uniform all centers around the uniform patch. He stated that the patch has been worn by many before us who earned the right to wear it with a lot less tools, safety, and pay than we have today. They earned it with hard work, long hours, and sweat. Many died wearing the patch. Those who wear it now should do so with the utmost respect and honor of those who came before them and the professional duty that they performed selflessly. When Captain Guzman puts on the uniform, especially to represent the OFD Honor Guard, he takes great pride in the patch itself, which then radiates to all other aspects of the uniform and his demeanor while wearing it.
He states that other than when a firefighter is first going through the academy, they are leaders on some level for the rest of their career. The uniform is a symbol of that leadership, even for something as simple as setting an example of professionalism for a newer firefighter or a peer.
Capt. Guzman was right of course. Even the newest firefighters become servant leaders in the community. The patch and the uniform demonstrate our professional focus on a mission of service as a member of a fraternity that is sworn to uphold an oath – the oath to save lives in selfless service to the public.
Before leaving the station to go to an incident, training, public event, or even the grocery store, the company officer should always look at how the crew “looks” as a group. Are they wearing the uniform of the day with pride? Are they wearing a clean uniform? Are they wearing a uniform that meets regulations?
Will you bring awe to the kids, the young adults, the tax payers, and the veterans when you go out? Will you bring a sense of pride to the community with whom you cross paths? Will that someone be impressed with what they see and want to become firefighters themselves, or will they be left with questions about the mission of the fire department in their mind as they walk away?
Be ready to teach, serve, learn, and lead by displaying the uniform with pride. It’s reflection of how you do the rest of the job. The uniform is our signal to the world that we appreciate this opportunity, and that we will continue to give it the respect that it deserves!