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Firefighter’s badge: A tradition of public trust

The greatest symbol of our unfettered access to public trust is the badge; it’s critical we keep that trust sacred


Tradition has been a strong part of the American fire service since the time of Benjamin Franklin. But the roots of our service go back hundreds of years before Franklin formed the first organized fire companies that served Philadelphia and became the framework for volunteer, and subsequently career fire departments across our young nation.

Some might argue that traditions hinder our progress, and therefore should be abandoned in favor of a culture that embraces only change. I believe that the fire service needs to embrace changes that provide better more efficient service while increasing the safety to our public and ourselves.

But I also believe that some traditions — especially those that contain endearing values — are an integral part of who we are as firefighters. Let me explain.

Firefighters are much more than a fire department — an organization that solely fights fires when they occur in their area. Whether we like it or not, today’s fire service has become the all hazards emergency team for our community.

That is we provide the primary response that handles fires, emergency and tactical medical service, several rescue disciplines, hazardous material response, mass casualty response, community risk reduction and severe weather responses.

Our badge

One tradition that I hope we never lose is the distinct shape of our badges. During my tenure, I have served with departments that have used both the Maltese cross design and the larger shield design for their badges.

Ironically, whether a cross or shield, tradition would tell us that both styles of our badge have a common origin — the Knights of Malta and their predecessor, the Order of St. John. In fact, the St. John’s Ambulance Service is still very much alive in most countries that were once a part of the United Kingdom, including England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Putting aside the religious affiliations of both groups, the Knights of St. John were formed during the 11th century crusades to care for the sick and wounded and to safeguard the routes from bandits for pilgrims traveling from Europe to the Holy Land.

Following the crusades in the 16th century, the Island of Malta was ceded to these knights. They grew the island not only into a fortification to protect southern Europe, but also as a center for shipping and trade — hence the change in name from the Knights of St. John to the Knights of Malta.

Tradition states that the shield badge is similar to the shields used by the Knights of Malta to defend themselves, while the cross design comes from their emblem painted in red on their shields. Both the American fire service and the International Red Cross have direct ties to the design of those shields used by these medieval knights.

Perhaps more importantly, however, is that legend tells us that these knights of old from almost a millennium ago, had a creed or belief that their purpose in life was to serve those less fortunate. They held that service, honor and integrity — what they may have called gallantry, chivalry or courage — defined the service to others that they performed and we provide today.

Unfettered access

Look at where we are as firefighters. We are the only service in the United States authorized to enter a home, business or property without a search warrant in order to fight a fire and protect the common good of all our population.

Stop and think about that. In the ongoing discussions on personal privacy being debated throughout the world, there is a long established laws of our country that firefighters can enter a property, whether the owner is present of not, for the purpose of extinguishing a fire that if left unchecked would do devastating harm to others in that neighborhood.

By our very nature as firefighters, residents still invite us into their homes during the worst day of their lives, knowing that we are there to make things better. This public trust is a tremendous responsibility, and one rarely afforded to anyone, including firefighters in other countries.

Is it any wonder that society decidedly holds us to a higher standard of conduct, and why when one of us fails that public trust through wrongdoing or misbehavior, that all of us suffer from that breach of trust.

So every time you pin on your badge, whether to be sworn in as the newest firefighter, or as a veteran firefighter, officer or chief reporting to work, remember the trust it represents and the higher code of conduct we collectively must uphold.

I for one hope that tradition of public trust afforded everyday in each one of us, will never be extinguished.

Chief Robert R. Rielage, CFO, EFO, FIFireE, is the former Ohio fire marshal and has been a chief officer in several departments for more than 30 years. A graduate of the Kennedy School’s Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government at Harvard University, Rielage holds a master’s degree in public administration from Norwich University and is a past-president of the Institution of Fire Engineers – USA Branch. He has served as a subject-matter expert, program coordinator and evaluator, and representative working with national-level organizations, such as FEMA, the USFA and the National Fire Academy. Rielage served as a committee member for NFPA 1250 and NFPA 1201. In 2019, he received the Ohio Fire Service Distinguished Service Award. Rielage is currently working on two books – “On Fire Service Leadership” and “A Practical Guide for Families Dealing with a Fire or Police LODD.” Connect with Rielage via email.