Many Fire Departments across the country use widely recognized symbols as part of their company badge, including the Maltese Cross and a collection of symbolic items grouped together and known as a Scramble. These badges and symbols are displayed on uniforms, helmets, firetrucks and other apparatus for quick identification... and for pride in the legacy of service provided by firefighters throughout history. So where did these symbolic elements come from and what is the meaning behind them?
The Maltese Cross
The Maltese Cross is an eight-pointed cross that was adopted by the Knights of Malta, also known as the Knights of St. John, during the Crusades to help identify their order on the field of battle. These knights were known for their courageous acts, often endangering their own lives to help and care for others that were injured on the battlefield. In particular, the knights became known for aiding those that suffered from the infamous “Greek Fire”, containers of naphtha, and other incendiary weapons and flammable liquids that were thrown by opposing forces, and extinguishing the fires these weapons started. Later, the knights also adopted large red cloaks that they wore over their armor, not only for prestige and to help distinguish their order, but also for the more practical purpose of smothering flames on people that had been soaked in fuel and put to flame.
The symbol of the Knights of Malta, what became known as the Maltese Cross, quickly became a widely recognized and admired badge of honor that extends to the current day. It’s fitting that the National Volunteer Fire Council and the International Association of Fire Fighters, as well as thousands of Fire Departments across the country, have adopted the Maltese Cross as a symbol that exemplifies the courage and abilities of firefighters.
The Maltese Cross of the Knights of Malta
The Maltese Cross of Modern Firefighters
The other component of many firefighter badges is a collection of fire symbols grouped together in the center of the cross in what is called a Scramble. The specific symbols used vary between departments and services, but most contain a variety of tools (current and/or historical) of the firefighting trade. Displaying these items together in a Scramble symbolizes readiness, togetherness and preparedness.
It’s easy to understand why the tools still currently in use – such as ladders, axes, hydrants, hoses and helmets – are often included in a Scramble. Some of the historical tools, however, might benefit from a brief description:
Bugles. Before digital, wireless communication devices, the leader of a crew used a bugle to direct the action at a fire scene; today, the bugle still symbolizes leadership.
Pike poles (hooks). Originally used by firefighters to pull down walls and other structures to help stop the spread of a fire, to pull items out of intense flames, and to ventilate structures by breaking windows. This is the “hook” referred to in the name, “hook and ladder” truck.
Lanterns and torches. Before electric lights, lanterns and torches were used to light street lamps ahead of the crew and provide light for horse-drawn apparatus.
Continuing the tradition and service
Benjamin Franklin established the first volunteer fire department, the Union Fire Company, in Philadelphia in 1736, its mission to fight all fires in the area, regardless of whose property was burning or endangered. (Up until that then, Fire Societies, also called “Fire Clubs”, served in that capacity – but only for members, not for the general community). George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Paul Revere, Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and many others all followed Franklin’s lead and served as volunteer firefighters in our country’s early years. Since that time, firefighters have been carrying on the tradition and service, symbolized by the firefighter badge, of courageously battling fires and saving lives throughout the country. Today, nearly a million volunteer firefighters serve in in over 27,000 fire departments nationwide.