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History and Traditions

Brady Fire MalteseHistory of the Maltese Cross

The badge of a fireman is the Maltese Cross. This Maltese Cross is a symbol of protection and a badge of honor. Its story is hundreds of years old.

When a courageous band of crusaders known as the Knights of St. John, fought the Saracens for possession of the holy land, they encountered a new weapon unknown to European warriors. It was a simple, but a horrible device of war, it wrought excruciating pain and agonizing death upon the brave fighters for the cross. The Saracen’s weapon was fire.As the crusaders advanced on the walls of the city, they were struck by glass bombs containing naphtha. When they became saturated with the highly flammable liquid, the Saracens hurled a flaming torch into their midst. Hundreds of the knights were burned alive; others risked their lives to save their brothers-in-arms from dying painful, fiery deaths.Thus, these men became our first firemen and the first of a long list of courageous firefighters. Their heroic efforts were recognized by fellow crusaders who awarded each here a badge of honor – a cross similar to the one firemen wear today. Since the Knights of St. John lived for close to four centuries on a little island in the Mediterranean Sea named Malta, the cross came to be known as the Maltese Cross.The Maltese Cross is your symbol of protection. It means that the fireman who wears this cross is willing to lay down his life for you just as the crusaders sacrificed their lives for their fellow man so many years ago. The Maltese Cross is a fireman’s badge of honor, signifying that he works in courage – a ladder rung away from death.

Why is it called a fire “plug”?

You are correct to question this. They are really hydrants. But tradition dies hard in the fire service. Many years ago water mains really had wooden plugs. During a fire the firefighters would dig down to the main and drill a hole to get water. After the fire a wooden plug was driven into the hole. Firefighters tried to remember where all the plugs were because it was easier and quicker to knock out a plug than to drill a hole. A fire fighter would simply use an ax to knock the plug out. Sometimes all this would do is fill a depression in the ground so people could scoop up water in buckets. Later, water would be drafted out of the mains. These mains were sometimes made from wood or other material.

What do the horn shaped insignias you sometimes see on clothing or helmets mean?

In the early days, of North American fire departments, orders were given to the troops, by officers, by speaking through a device that resembled a megaphone. These were very ornate brass horns. They were commonly called “Bugles” or speaking trumpets. This was the major means of communications on the fire ground for over 100 years.

A “Bugle” ———————- Chief’s collar brass ——-Captain’s hat brass

Officers were the only ones allowed to use this object so a small pin in the shape of a bugle became a type of rank insignia for officers. The more “bugles on his collar” the higher the rank. An expression still used today.

Why do firefighters wear red suspenders?

To hold their pants up! Hello?

Some departments have “Kelly Days”. What is that and where did the term come from?

Labor laws establish how many hours a worker can work, in a given period, before the employer is required to pay overtime. For firefighters this amount is set at 53 hours a week. This does not mean that a firefighter gets overtime pay the instant he or she works over 53 hours in a week. For a 24/48 schedule this would amount to 19 hours of OT every third week because on two weeks the firefighter would work 48 hours but on the third it would be 72. This amount can be an average of hours in a set time period. But even this would an be average of 56 hours a week. Something must be done to avoid paying that 3 hours a week overtime. (Although some departments do just pay it.) Many departments use a four week pay period. As long as the firefighter does not average over 53 hours a week, in that period, the employer is within the law.

Confused yet?

What usually occurs is that over a four week period about 12 hours of time is accrued. That is then matched with 12 hours of vacation or a holiday for a complete shift off. This amounts to getting about every 9th shift off. But this is not always the case. Some departments may choose a different schedule. In some departments, the union negotiates a contract that includes certain days off. For whatever reason, this is just a predictable time off from your regular shift.

Where did the name come from? This is a question I get often.

One “legend” is that there once was a worker who always took off (sick?) a particular day. Perhaps this was the Monday after he was paid for the month. Or it could have been based upon some other regular, predictable, event. The legend then goes on to suggest that this person’s name WAS “Kelly”. From that, the term was applied to a day off taken. “I’m taking a day off like Kelly.” became “I am taking a Kelly day.” Other legends have the chief who invented it named Kelly. Members of several departments have contacted me and proclaimed that it was in their city that the term was born. One has it named for a chief who “invented” it. Another says it was named for a mayor. I have had one person say that it went back to a specific person, named Kelly, in Ireland. I get more emails about this than just about any other subject.

The most insistent group are those who claim that it is named for a Chicago Mayor, Edward Kelly. Mayor Kelly was the son of a Chicago firefighter. The CFD had endured many hardships due to the depression and the bad blood between unions and business. Around 1936 Mayor kelly changed the firefighter’s schedule to give them an extra day off. Mayor Kelly was so loved by the fire department for this and other improvements to wages and benefits that he was named an honorary firefighter.

EMS and the Fire Service

The fire service and emergency medical care, or first aid, have a long standing relationship. From the very first contact with fire there has been the need to minister to those who have been injured by it. It was always the firefighters who rescued people from buildings which were on fire. Fire engines carried first aid equipment for most of the twentieth century. When more advanced emergency procedures were developed for first aid providers it was only natural to involve the fire service. While some cities, or other areas, have placed the responsibility on private industry, or other forms of emergency service, EMS still is a large part of any fire department. Fire apparatus now respond to a large list of potential, or known, medical calls. Fire companies respond on traffic accidents and heart attacks, just to name two examples. For better or worse, many cities are beginning to view medical runs as a source of revenue that helps to support or improve the level of care they can offer. No matter how one may feel about the subject, EMS and the fire service is probably here to stay.

EMS in the fire service has not come without resistance and problems. Many departments, with strong unions or other forces, have resisted the trend to have their members trained as paramedics. In many departments the older members would express that paramedics were not “real firefighters”. I have heard it said that paramedics were afraid to fight fire and that is why they volunteered for the job. But that thinking is dying out as the old guys leave. EMS has been in many fire departments since the mid 70’s or early 80’s. A very large percentage of today’s fire officers were once paramedics on an MICU. Many fire chiefs are now also former paramedics. This is something almost unheard of just ten years ago.




Star Of Life History.

Just as  pharmacists have the mortar and pestle and doctors have the caduceus, Emergency Medical Technicians have a symbol, its use is encouraged both by the American Medical Association and the Advisory Council within the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

The symbol applies to all emergency medical goods and services which are funded under the DOT/EMS program.

Designed by Leo R. Schwartz, Chief of the EMS Branch, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the “Star of Life” was created after the American National Red Cross complained in 1973 that they objected to the common use of an Omaha orange cross on a square background of reflectorized white which clearly imitated the Red Cross symbol.

NHTSA investigated and felt the complaint was justified. The newly designed, six barred cross, was adapted from the Medical Identification Symbol of the American Medical Association and was registered as a certification mark on February 1, 1977 with the Commissioner of Patents and Trade-marks in the name of the National Highway Traffic Safety and Administration. The trademark will remain in effect for twenty years from this date.

Each of the bars of the blue “Star of Life” represents the six system function of the EMS, as illustrated below:

The capitol letter “R” enclosed in the circle on the right represents the fact that the symbol is a “registered” certification. The snake and staff in the center of the symbol portray the staff Asclepius who, according to Greek mythology, was the son of Apollo (god of light, truth and prophecy). Supposedly Asclepius learned the art of healing from the centaur Cheron; but Zeus – king of the gods, was fearful that because of Asclepius knowledge, all men might be rendered immortal. Rather than have this occur, Zeus slew Asclepius with a thunderbolt. Later, Asclepius was worshipped as a god and people slept in his temples, as it was rumored that he effected cures of prescribed remedies to the sick during their dreams. Asclepius was usually shown in a standing position, dressed in a long cloak, holding a staff with a serpent coiled around it. The staff has since come to represent medicine’s only symbol.

In the Caduceus, used by physicians and the Military Medical Corp., the staff is winged and has two serpents intertwined. Even though this does not hold any medical relevance in origin, it represents the magic wand of the Greek deity, Hermes, messenger of the gods.

The Bible, in Numbers 21:9, makes reference to a serpent on a staff: “And Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on the standard; and it came about, that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived.

 St. Florian

All firefighters are aware that Saint Florian is the patron Saint of firefighters. Many have purchased and are very proud to wear the Saint Florian medallion around their neck. These medallions are usually gold and many are shaped in the form of a Maltese cross with the image of Florian stamped in the center of it. If you ask who Florian was or why he is our Patron Saint, most firefighters don’t know. They assume it is because he made some heroic fire rescue or maybe he was a priest who was involved in the fire service. These answers are the typical response but neither is accurate.

Florian was a Captain in the Roman army. He was a brave soldier and a tenacious fighter. Rome recognized the danger of fire and was the first to employ a fire department. This first fire department was made up of slaves. They had no real desire to risk their lives battling the flames of their captors. Rome desperately needed fire protection. They called on Captain Florian to organize and train an elite group of soldiers whose sole duty was to fight fires. Captain Florian indeed organized such a group. They were highly trained and very successful at protecting Rome from fires. A brigade of firefighters followed the army and provided fire protection at their encampments. These firefighters were highly respected and easily recognized. They wore the traditional Roman soldier uniform except the skirt was green. The most famous picture of Saint Florian depicts him with a young boy pouring water from a pitcher onto a fire. This picture if seen in color reveals this green skirt.

Rome was very impressed by this young Captain and all that he had accomplished. They decided to reward him by making him a general. Generals were often given large tracks of conquered land to govern. The only rules were that they had to enforce the laws of Rome and collect the taxes. Florian’s area included almost all of Poland. Rome began to hear some rumors about the way Florian was governing his land. It was reported that he was not enforcing Rome’s law forbidding Christianity. Rome did not believe this, but they did sent investigators to check. They reported back that it was true. Rome sent a group of soldiers to confront Florian. They warned and threatened him that he must enforce the laws of Rome and abolish Christianity. Florian not only refused he confessed that he had embraced the faith and become a Christian himself. Rome was furious. They tortured him and demanded he renounce his faith. Florian steadfastly refused. Rome ordered his execution.

Florian was to be burned at the stake. Soldiers marched him out and secured him to the post. Villagers gathered around to witness the execution. Florian begged his executioners to build the fire higher. He implored them to light the fire so his soul would rise up to heaven on the smoke from the blaze. The soldiers had never seen this kind of reaction from a person about to be burned alive. They were frightened. What if his soul did rise up, right in from of all the villagers? They could not afford a martyr. The fire was not lit. Florian was taken away by the soldiers who decided to drown him. He was placed in a boat and rowed out into the river. A millstone was tied around his neck and he was pushed over board and drowned.
After his death, people who were trapped by fire reported that they invoked Florian’s name and his spirit delivered them from the flames. These occurrences were reported and documented many times. Florian was confirmed a saint for his commitment to his faith and the documentation of his spirit delivering trapped persons from the flames.

It is only fitting, that firefighters, committed to their duty, and instilled with the spirit to dedicate themselves to the protection of life and property, should choose such a man as their patron saint.


The tradition of bagpipes played at fire department funerals in the United States goes back over one hundred fifty years. When the Irish and Scottish immigrated to this country, they brought many of their traditions with them. One of these was the bagpipe, often played at Celtic weddings, funerals and ceilis (dances).

It wasn’t until the great potato famine and massive Irish immigration to the East Coast of the United States that the tradition of the pipes really took hold in fire departments. Factories and shops had signs reading “NINA”-No Irish Need Apply. The only jobs they could get were the ones no one else wanted -jobs that were dirty, dangerous or both – fire-fighters and police officers. It was not an uncommon event to have several firefighters killed at a working fire. The Irish firefighters funerals were typical of all Irish funerals-the pipes were played. It was somehow okay for a hardened firefighter to cry at the sound of pipes when his dignity would not let him weep for a fallen comrade.

Those who have been to funerals when bagpipes play know how haunting and mournful the sound of the pipes can be. Before too long, families and friends of non-Irish firefighters began asking for the piper to play for these fallen heroes. The pipes add a special air and dignity to the solemn occasion.

Associated with cities such as Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Chicago, pipe bands representing both fire and police often have more than 60 uniformed members. They are also traditionally known as Emerald Societies after Ireland-the Emerald Isle. Many bands wear traditional Scottish dress while others wear the simpler Irish uniform. All members wear the kilt and tunic, whether it is a Scottish clan tartan or Irish single color kilt.

Today, the tradition is universal and not just for the Irish or Scottish. The pipes have come to be a distinguishing feature of a fallen hero’s funeral.

Why are Fire Engines Red?

The most widely-accepted reason that fire engines are painted red dates back to the 1800s — a time when there was a LOT of competition between the fire brigades of neighboring cities and towns.  The firefighters of each brigade took great pride in their pump. Each brigade wanted their rig stand out by being the cleanest, having the most brass, or being a regal color. Because red was the most expensive color, that’s what color most crews chose to paint the pump.

Other sources cite the tradition of painting fire engines red going back to the early 1920’s. Henry Ford wanted to make cars as inexpensively as possible and only offered cars in one color:  black. With all of these black vehicles on the road, the fire service began painting their vehicles red in an effort to stand out.

Today, just as you have many more choices of colors available to you for your vehicle, so do the fire engine manufacturers, and it is not uncommon to see white, yellow, blue, orange, green, or even black fire engines, in addition to red.  And while some studies hint that colors such as lime-green may be more visible to the public than traditional red, the vast majority of fire departments continue to use red fire engines — a color instantly recognized by everyone as that of a fire engine.


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