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Fire Department Traditions

When we hear the word tradition it brings to mind many things. Every one of us has been touched by at least one tradition. Many are family oriented, like holiday celebrations, family reunions, or how we are taught to interact with other people – these are all examples of traditions. In the fire service we have many traditions as well. From the first moment a new firefighter (probationary firefighter, rookie, or "probie") is taken into the department family they are introduced to fire service traditions.  These traditions transcend generations, and give the fire service its famous brotherhood.


The Maltese Cross
CFD Patch
CFD Honor Statement
The Dalmatian Dog
Helmet Colors
First Water
Saint Florian
Tolling of the Bell
Firefighter's Prayers
Other Traditions






The man who established the first volunteer fire department also invented bifocals, wrote and printed Poor Richard’s Almanac, studied electricity and helped draft the Declaration of Independence. His name was Benjamin Franklin. The first volunteer fire department began in Philadelphia in 1736.

Franklin often wrote about the dangers of fire and the need for organized fire protection. He was dissatisfied with Boston’s Mutual Fire Societies (also known as "Fire Clubs") because the "Fire Clubs" existed solely for the protection of its members, not the community at large. Franklin wanted organizations that would battle all fires, regardless of whose property was burning.

After an extensive fire in Philadelphia in 1736, Franklin established the first all-volunteer fire brigade which was known as The Union Fire company which was comprised of 30 volunteers. As the idea of volunteer fire brigades gained popularity, additional companies were formed in Philadelphia. Each of the companies paid for their own equipment and located it throughout town at strategic places.

Other famous Americans who served as volunteer firefighters include: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Paul Revere, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, John Barry, Aaron Burr, Benedict Arnold, James Buchanan and Millard Fillmore.

Volunteer firefighters played and continue to play an invaluable role in protecting lives and property.

In today's fire service, there are two types of firefighters: Volunteer and CareerWe are all professional firefighters.

Source: Kemah FD, 2005

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Total population of United States and all territories: 286,196,812.

Number of firefighters in United States: 1,078,300 (Only .3% of U.S. population are firefighters!).

Number of Volunteer firefighters in United States: 784,700 (73% of firefighters are Volunteers, making .2% of U.S. population).

Firefighters in United States
26,354 Fire Departments in U.S.
19,224 are all Volunteer (73%)
3,845 are mostly Volunteer combination departments (88%)
1,407 are mostly Career combination departments with volunteers (93%)
1,878 are all Career (7%)
            - According to National Volunteer Fire Council

93% of Fire Departments in the United States use Volunteer Firefighters.


Services contributed by Volunteer Firefighters save localities across the country an estimated $36.8 billion per year.

- According to the National Association of Foresters, 1993: Fire Protection in Rural America.


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The Maltese Cross

The Maltese cross is known around the world as a symbol of the fire service. It is often seen painted on fire trucks, on the clothing of firefighters, depicted on firefighters badges, and is quite often the chosen design of firefighter tattoos.  The Maltese Cross is a symbol of protection, a badge of honor, and its story is hundreds of years old.

The Knights of St. John existed during the 11th and 12 centuries. To help identify friend from foe during the fighting, they needed a symbol that could be used to quickly and easily identify themselves. They chose the Cross of Calvary (which would later be known as the Maltese cross) as their symbol because the Crusades were battles fought for a holy cause. During these battles, the enemies of the knights commonly used fire as a weapon. It was not uncommon for a Knight to have to risk his own life to extinguish a fire or rescue a comrade. 

As the crusaders advanced on the walls of a city in the holy land, they were bombarded with glass bombs containing naphtha. When they were saturated with the liquid, the defending Saracens threw flaming torches into the crusaders. Hundreds of knights were burned alive while others risked their lives in an effort to save their kinsmen from painful fiery deaths. Thus these men became the first Firemen, and the first of a long line of Firefighters. Their heroic efforts were recognized by fellow crusaders who awarded each other with a badge of honor similar to the cross firefighters wear today.

Since the Knights of St. John lived for close to four centuries on the island of Malta, in the Mediterranean Sea, the cross came to be known as the Maltese Cross. The Maltese Cross is your symbol of protection. It means that the Firefighter that 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 Firefighter’s badge of honor, signifying that he works in courage.

Because of the Knights of St. John's ability to fight fires, and the pride and honor they took in the care of their sick and injured, the Maltese cross evolved into a fitting symbol of the modern fire service.  The cross has since come to represent the principles of pride, honor, charity, loyalty, gallantry, generosity to friend and foe, dexterity of service, and protection of the weak.

Source: fireweb.com, Kemah FD, 2005

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Campbell F.D. Patch

We take great pride in the design of our department patch.  Each element of our patch has a special meaning.  CFD members wear this patch with honor.

The outline of the patch is the traditional Maltese Cross. The Maltese Cross represents pride, honor, charity, loyalty, gallantry, generosity to friend and foe, dexterity of service, and protection of the weak.  It is also carried to honor those who carried the insignia before us.  More information about the Maltese Cross can be found in the History of the Maltese Cross.

The shape of the patch is a Maltese Cross bordered in white.  This represents that firefighters must be of good character and temperate in habits.  The gold trim and text symbolizes that firefighters, like gold, will withstand trial by fire and still remain.  Thus, the patch is a symbol of protectioncharacter, and strength.

In the center of the cross is a traditional "fire scramble".  It is a collection of items that represent readiness.  The speaking trumpet represents leadership and is from the days when fire officers would use the speaking trumpet to direct personnel.  The helmet represents safety.  The axe, ladder, hydrant, and pike pole (also called a hook) represent the specialized tools of the firefighting trade.  Combined, the "scramble" symbolizes total readiness.  The color red behind the scramble symbolizes our enemy - fire - and represents the courage of men and women who battle it.  We're always willing, and always ready, to go to battle against our enemy.


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Campbell F.D. Honor Statement

Ne Relinquas

The Honor Statement of the Campbell Fire Department and Campbell Firefighters is "Ne Relinquas".

A proud statement in Latin, this Honor Statement embodies the spirit, determination, and dedication of generations of Campbell Firefighters.

"Ne" is a negative subjunctive.  The term "Relinquas" is the subjunctive form of "Relinquere", carrying the connotation of "abandon" or "leave behind".  Translated into English, "Ne Relinquas" means "Never Quit", "Never abandon", and "Never Leave Behind".  

These words describe a philosophy that has been passed from firefighter to firefighter through years of mentorship.  This philosophy is a legacy left for future Campbell firefighters by their predecessors. 


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The Dalmatian Dog

One of the most recognized symbols of the fire service is the Dalmatian dog. The origins of the breed are mysterious, and experts are unsure how old the breed truly is.

It is known that the Dalmatian, because of its poor hunting abilities, was relegated to the stable area of fine homes. It was in these stables that the Dalmatian became acquainted with the horses. Dalmatians were adopted by the fire service in the days of the horse-drawn fire wagons because they were agile and not afraid of the horses. The Dalmatian, with its superior agility and endurance could run out in front of the horses and clear the streets for the approaching fire wagon. When the horses were replaced by gasoline-driven fire engines, many fire departments kept their Dalmatians. In some areas you can still see the Dalmatian standing proudly on top of the fire engine as it races to another emergency.

 Source: Kemah FD, 2005

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Helmet Colors

There is no formal standard for the color of helmets. Until the 1980's it was common for firefighters to have black helmets. Only chiefs had a different color and that was white. Officers would have an emblem on their black helmets. New helmet design and composite materials provide us with a choice of colors. Company officers often have red helmets and Chiefs are usually white. A national consensus is emerging but some departments apparently are clinging to their own traditions. Some departments will have a color for lieutenants while others do not.  In the western part of the U. S., officers will have red or white helmets while firefighters (the rank) will have yellow. As you go east you will find black as the more common color for firefighters. LA has yellow helmets. NY has black. Dallas has yellow for non-officers while Houston uses black for firefighters. Luckily you will often find rank position labeled on the helmet.

The Campbell Fire Department helmet colors generally indicate the following:

  • White - Chief, Deputy Chief, or Training Officer

  • Red - Assistant Chief

  • Yellow - Lieutenant

  • Black - Firefighter

A helmet is a very personal thing to a firefighter.  It protects them from falling and burning debris, and shields them from scalding water and other dangerous materials. The long brim of a firefighter's helmet gives them extra protection against these threats.


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First Water

The term "First Water" actually dates back to the 1800's when fire departments actually competed with one another. When two departments were in the same area, the town would often only pay the first fire department on scene, while the second received nothing. In other areas it was a matter of pride. The first department to put water on the fire would claim "First Water" and, in a way, get credit for fighting that fire. Some departments even hired young kids who would race to a fire on foot and throw a single bucket of water on the flames. This usually did very little or nothing to fight the fire, but it would earn that department the right to claim "First Water".

The phrase is still used in some areas today. When a department is called out to a fire they will often refer to three events: Dispatch time, On scene time, and time of First Water, the moment when the first fire stream actually begins fighting the fire.

Source: Kemah FD, 2005


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Saint Florian

Saint Florian, the patron saint of firefighters, was an officer in the Roman army during the third century. Saint Florian had converted to Christianity but kept his new faith a secret to avoid persecution. When ordered to execute a group of Christians during the persecutions of Diocletian, Saint Florian professed his faith and refused to follow the order. He then had a stone tied around his neck and he was thrown into a river where he drowned.

Florian is said to have once stopped an entire town from burning by throwing a single bucket of water onto the fire. Saint Florian is the patron saint of firefighters, chimney sweeps, barrel-makers, soap boilers, harvests, Austria, Poland and others.

Source: Kemah FD, 2005


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Bagpipes at Fire Department Funerals

The tradition of bagpipes being played at fire department funerals in the United States goes back over one hundred and 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 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" meaning No Irish Need Apply. The only jobs they could get were the ones no one else wanted -- jobs that were dirty, dangerous or both -- firefighters 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.

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.

Source: Ohio Fire Chief, July 1997


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Tolling of the Bell

Long before the Internet was invented, or telephones and radios were used across our great nation, fire departments used the telegraph to communicate - using special codes to receive fire alarms from those once-familiar red fire alarm boxes which stood on practically every street corner of America.

When a firefighter was killed, or in the language of the military and public safety: "fell", in the line of duty, the fire alarm office would tap out a special signal. This would be tapped out as five measured dashes - then a pause - then five measured dashes - then a pause - then five more measured dashes.

This came to be called the Tolling of the Bell and was broadcast over the telegraph fire alarm circuits to all station houses in the vicinity. Heard outside on the streets - with the fire department's windows open, the resonating echo was similar to that of fire stations of old where fire alarm gongs sounded the locations of thousands of emergencies throughout the history of our growing country.

This was done for the purpose of notification, and as a sign of honor and respect for all firefighters who had made the ultimate sacrifice in service to their communities. Such symbolism has been a time-honored fire service tradition and is repeated at each service of a fallen firefighter.

Source: Kemah FD, 2005


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Firefighter's Prayers


When I am called to duty, God, whenever flames may rage;
Give me strength to save some life, whatever be its age.
Help me embrace a little child before it is too late
Or save an older person from the horror of that fate.
Enable me to be alert and hear the weakest shout,
And quickly and efficiently to put the fire out.
I want to fill my calling to give the best in me,
To guard my every neighbor and protect their property.
And if, according to my fate, I am to lose my life;
Please bless with your protecting hand my children and my wife.

Author unknown


Dearest Father in heaven, we pray,
Keep all Firemen safe today
Who everyday risk their lives for us
And our prayers to you, we entrust.

They face each day with imminent dangers,
Saving men, women, and children who are virtual strangers.
They never ask nor question why
They strive to save those who otherwise might die.

Father, we are proud of these heroes of right. 
Keep them safe in your special light. 
Help them to always do their best.
And at night, in peace, let them rest.

Firefighters, Father, face constant stress.
Each day doing their best, no less.
Be with them always
Through good or bad,
And at all times, 
Through happy and sad. 

Author unknown


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Other Traditions

Other traditions in the fire service happen on a much larger scale. Some of these include sending department representatives to the funeral of a firefighter lost in the line of duty in a neighboring community, in the next state, or clear across the country. It doesn’t matter whether we personally knew the person or not, they are part of our brotherhood.

It is a long and storied tradition that we show our respects toward our fellow brothers in the fire service. These heroes paid the ultimate sacrifice. We remember these individuals, and will never forget them.


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