Pink for a purpose: How the fire service supports breast cancer awareness
How a simple question – “Can you paint our engine pink?” – led to a powerful campaign for firefighters
Firefighters have long had emotional ties to their communities, each helping the other through thick and thin. Communities across the country band together to help local fire companies with extraordinary needs, and fire companies protect members from a variety of hazards – but also complete other tasks, from filling pools to using their stations for community meetings.
One of the powerful emotional connections that firefighters share with their communities is the support of breast cancer awareness. Firefighters wear pink shirts, ribbons and patches/badges during October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
As a chief, I have been a proud and tireless advocate for breast cancer awareness and fundraising amongst our troops. A little more about that in a minute.
You want a pink fire engine?
Stories abound reflecting on why fire engines are typically red. The story I’ll stick with originates from the early 1900s, when almost every car available from Henry Ford was black. It is said that fire brigades wanted their vehicles to stand out, so they painted them red. Some have said it’s because fire hydrants were red; some say it’s because the color stimulates people’s senses. I suspect we don’t REALLY care, and I also acknowledge the sometimes controversial and many differing conspicuity studies on fire apparatus colors.
So why would you paint a fire engine pink? The question has a really simple, albeit unusual, answer: You paint a fire engine pink to raise awareness for breast cancer research.
As chief in Prince George’s County, Maryland, when I asked Pierce Manufacturing in 2013, “Can you paint our engine pink?” they replied simply, “If that’s what you want, chief, yes.” This was followed by several people, including many at Pierce, wanting to verify over and over again throughout the process that I was serious – I REALLY wanted a pink fire engine. After all, Pierce had never painted a fire engine pink before!
The story of the Pink Firemen – and a growing mission
But our story of pink apparatus goes back to 2011.
Montgomery County, Maryland, Firefighter (ret.) Marshall Moneymaker approached our department about having an older engine “wrapped” in pink. While it took a while to understand the scope of the project, Moneymaker’s story was easy to understand and as compelling – and undeniably heartbreaking – as they come. Moneymaker’s three sisters were all diagnosed with breast cancer, and one by one, each passed away – Vicky (February 2008), Penny (June 2010) and Valessa (September 2010). I encourage you to read more about “The Pink Fireman” at his For 3 Sisters website and the Susan G. Komen organization.
While his crew rallied behind him, Moneymaker began his very personal quest to raise awareness about breast cancer. In preparation for the 2011 Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we accepted the offer to have our first unit wrapped in pink – done free of charge through contacts that Moneymaker had developed.
I will admit there were some who called me crazy, and the occasional citizen who angrily demanded that “fire trucks should be red.” But the tears of joy from breast cancer patients and survivors was music to our ears and strings to our hearts.
This first engine, dubbed “Pinky,” quickly became a hit and the most requested unit for display at special events. The wrap was only intended to stay on for six months, as the wrapper felt that was a sufficient “warranty” of the wrap under the abuse a fire engine would surely give it. Six years later, the wrap was finally removed as the wear and tear was just too much.
As part of the preparation for the unveiling of Pinky, we also developed our first pink shirts campaign, allowing crewmembers (paid and volunteer) to wear the pink shirts in lieu of uniform shirts while on duty during the month of October. The demand for the shirts was overwhelming, and the emotional connection to the mission grew.
The experiences in 2011 not only convinced me we had done the right thing, but that we could also do more. Pink shirts and an internal contest for the design became an annual sojourn for our members. We also began planning for something bigger.
Pink takes over
This sparked the initial discussion with Pierce for the 2014 pink engine – and discussion that eventually grew to also include our next ambulance (2014 Freightliner/Horton) being factory-painted “Pepto pink.”
We engaged the department on the design, ultimately using a lavender reflective stripe – lavender being representative of the entire disease spectrum.
PIO Mark Brady came up with the idea to have a social media contest to name the two new pink units. The community chose “Courage” for the engine and “Hope” for the medic unit.
Together, Pinky, Courage and Hope not only raised awareness across the National Capital Region, but they also brought a sense of hope and caring that our members had not previously been able to express. All three apparatus were front-line units, and the crews assigned at those stations embraced the cause at event after event.
I’ve been proud to continue advocating for breast cancer awareness in Highlands County, Florida, where we are now in our third year of wearing and selling breast cancer awareness T-shirts.
The support in the community has been extraordinary, including one hospital purchasing approximately 100 pink shirts to present to their nurses. We expect to surpass $5,000 in total donations to local cancer charities for our campaigns.
This campaign is another shining example of how the fire service became, and continues to be, one of the most favorably recognized of government services, one pink shirt or one pink engine at a time.