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How does your department exhibit, honor and manage fire service tradition?

At its best, tradition is a moral compass; at its worst, it’s albatross hindering progress


“At its best, tradition is the moral compass carried in the pocket of every firefighter, but at its worst, it becomes an albatross hindering progress and making no provision for the changes,” writes Spell.

Photo/Placentia (Calif.) Fire Department

In little towns from Maine to the Carolinas, fire stations are resplendent in their brick buildings, draped in bunting and emanating the smell of leather every time the bay doors open. Helmets are handed down in ceremony from parent to child and sanctified by decades of volunteer service throughout the East.

Ben Franklin would be proud.

Out West, there is a progressive tone to the fire culture reflected in modern buildings and new response systems designed for wide-open spaces. From the rescue specialists of San Francisco to the hazmat teams of Phoenix, Western firefighters appear unencumbered by deep-rooted traditions.

But tradition is more than time and location, its value independent of longevity. Tradition IS the fire service – firefighters living it and sharing their reflections of it. It is who we are and what we do.

Tradition at its best and worst

Philosophical insight notwithstanding, most firefighters see tradition as a blend of history and myth. What is up for discussion, and always the source of a good argument, is how tradition is to be used in today’s modern and progressive fire service. Some want it memorized and enshrined only to be brought out for display along with the Class A uniforms at memorials and promotions. Others use tradition as concrete evidence, harping on the past in justification of outdated procedures and narrow-minded policy.

At its best, tradition is the moral compass carried in the pocket of every firefighter, but at its worst, it becomes an albatross hindering progress and making no provision for the changes.

Finding true values and lessons

Tradition is a rite of passage for every firefighter. Knowing the meaning of the Maltese cross or why the Dalmatian is the dog of choice at the local firehouse are critical elements in building solidarity and commitment to something greater. While it really does not matter whether fire trucks are red because the color was prohibitively expensive and a symbol of prestige or simply because it contrasted with Ford’s Model T black, these historical debates blend together in a storied tapestry of facts and legend.

While it is true that tradition gives us the chronological, if not mythological, foundation upon which we build the fire service one story at a time, our past must be interpreted for value and not just content. This allows for the extraneous and exaggerated while holding onto the true lessons such tales impart.

Finding tradition’s true value gives us the opportunity to admit both success and failure, thereby altering future outcomes through honest reflection and assessment. As a teaching tool, tradition should not be seen as hard-and-fast dictatorial edicts but rather demonstration templates for continuing education. While our exploits may be worthy of granite memorials, their teachings should not be set in stone.

A look in the organizational mirror

So ask yourself, “In my fire department, how are we using tradition?”

As officers, we understand that stories contain hidden truths, lessons obscured by years of embellishment and coded in humor and horror. We have learned this from every honest critique of every decision we have ever made.

Our true tradition contains more than past glories and tragedies; it holds the opportunity to learn from every event worthy of recollection regardless of origin, consequence or outcome. We need to recognize that tradition’s lessons, absent bias, have the unique capacity to guide the path of our firefighters toward personal accountability and increased success in decision-making.

It is our job as officers to make sure that these lessons, whether obscured by time or clouded by politics, are worthy and relevant to those we serve. While we still rely on tradition to remind us of our sacrifice and the responsibility it bestows, are we confident enough to strip away the bravado and false praise when necessary to get to the real truth and therefore the real lesson no matter how unpleasant or uncomfortable?

A good story notwithstanding, it is vital to the safety and progress of our crews that we guide such teachings to appropriate and productive conclusions. These lessons, steeped in tradition, serve as a foundation for every firefighter, providing strength of character and a commitment to purpose. Together, they make a job a career and a career a life.

Jim Spell spent 33 years as a professional firefighter with Vail (Colorado) Fire & Emergency Services, the last 20 years as a captain. He helped create the first student/resident fire science program west of the continental divide, formed the first countywide hazmat response unit and was on the original Colorado Governor’s Safety Committee. As founder of HAZPRO Consulting, LLC, Spell advised businesses on subjects ranging from hazard analysis and safety response to personnel development and organization. His writing won six IAFF Media Awards. Many of Spell’s articles are available by podcast at His last book was titled “Boot Basics: A Firefighter’s Guide to the Service.” Spell passed away in April 2024 after a short battle with cancer. His last four articles detailed his cancer journey.