With changes in society and new NFPA regulations, many departments are weighing their uniform choices. While the trend toward the casualization of work has spread to fire department uniforms, there are many factors that should be considered independent of style issues.
We all would like to think that we could make changes for the good of the department without considering tradition. Unfortunately, tradition can be very powerful, and uniforms and rank insignia can be very important symbols. In departments with legacies, sons may want to wear the same uniforms or patches as their fathers. There is at least one large department that recently had some turmoil over the addition of “Rescue” to their shoulder patch, which has been the same for more than 100 years. Whether because of firefighter protest, city leader refusal or budget shortfall, the patch remains the same.
Before spending money on new uniforms, you may want to define your objectives. Uniforms are more expensive than they were 10 years ago. You don't want to purchase uniforms that fulfill one objective while falling short of another.
When you take a group of people from varying backgrounds and dress them alike, they will develop a kinship and function better as a team. Napoleon knew this, as does every modern military leader. If this concept is important to your department, how will your new uniform achieve it?
This consideration is important when establishing uniform variations. Imagine purchasing different uniforms for summer and winter without establishing requirements for when to wear each. A firefighter in shorts and a T-shirt could be seen standing next to another with long sleeves and trousers. Some people will wear a T-shirt year-round if you let them, while others will wear a long-sleeve dress shirt everyday if it's an option. Is this acceptable, or does it conflict with your goals?
Throughout history, uniforms have been used to separate opposing teams or groups of individuals. Consider people from several departments and organizations at an emergency scene. Uniforms can assist identifying what agency is in charge. At non-incidents, how much do you want your team to stand out? Some fire department uniforms look like street clothes, which could be a problem if you're trying to find your members. However, some communities prefer this option for the accessibility it offers during public appearances.
Confidence and professionalism
Uniforms can project a positive, competent, confident and professional appearance in a quick visual message, which can benefit a fire department in several ways.
For example, an attorney who specializes in EMS and fire service cases says that a professional and competent appearance can help protect you from litigation. When loved ones suffer or die, the survivors sometimes will look for a reason. Family members often blame themselves, but their search can easily turn outward. Citizens who view emergency workers as competent professionals are less likely to look in their direction when searching for someone to blame for their loss.
Appearance also can affect the departments budget. City leaders or voters may be more likely to allocate funds for an organization that projects a competent image. More than one fire department has suffered because a ratty T-shirt was seen on an emergency worker during a TV news story.
Finally, many believe that people behave in a manner that reflects their appearance. Simply stated, “You become what you look like.” If you look like an unskilled laborer, you may act as such and you will be treated as such. Your behavior is influenced by how you and others perceive you.
Like police, fire and rescue personnel often must direct the actions of citizens at emergencies. Most police agencies carefully choose the design and color of their uniforms based on the psychological effect it has on citizens. They want people to do what they say. Is this an important consideration for your fire department?
The fire service has been described many times as a paramilitary organization. Although chiefs and firefighters have fought this concept over the years, the fact remains that we do have a rank structure.
Quick decisions must be made at emergency scenes. The best officers listen to those around them, but the ultimate responsibility for some action will fall on the person in charge. This can be a company officer in charge of three people or a scene commander directing the efforts of 30 companies. In such cases, we need a rank structure. But what is the purpose or importance of rank identification on a uniform?
Is the rank insignia there for the crew? Everyone on the crew knows the captain. They don't need to see it spelled out or count the bars or bugles on a collar.
Is the rank insignia for other crews at incidents? This is possible. But then how visible does it need to be? How would if differ between a fire and a medical call?
Is the rank insignia there for the higher-level officers so they don't waste time talking to everyone? Possibly. But how visible does this need to be? Simple bars or bugles will distinguish officers among themselves, but a citizen might not understand the symbols.
Is the rank insignia for other city departments and agencies? If this is a primary objective, then you may want to have the same rank insignia as the police.
Is the rank insignia for citizens? People who are frightened or complaining may be comforted by knowing that they're talking to an officer. Uniforms that obviously display rank can reduce how often citizens have to repeat themselves. Think of all the people who pour out their story to a firefighter or driver, only to be directed to an officer for an encore performance. Some uniform designs may be better at conveying who is in charge than others, such as white shirts for all officers.
If rank insignia is important to you, is it important all the time? Consider the departments that allow fire personnel to wear casual clothes or T-shirts at night. They may have clear rank insignia during the day but virtually none at night. Does the comfort of sleeping or the speed in responding outweigh the need for rank insignia?
Safety and utility
NFPA 1975, Station/Work Uniforms for Fire and Emergency Services, attempts to eliminate dangerous fabrics and establish a degree of protection for work uniforms. It addresses such issues as thermal stability and flame resistance as they pertain to fabrics that melt, drip, burn, stick to the skin and cause burns to the wearer.
A department can choose to purchase uniforms that are certified as NFPA-compliant, or it can purchase clothing that its members believe is compliant with NFPA standards. Then there are those who decide on a uniform design by “what looks nice.” Even if the clothing is NFPA-compliant or certified, there may be more to consider than appearance.
For example, is it important in your department that the apparel meets NFPA standards? Does it need to be certified as meeting NFPA safety criteria? Is there a need for it to be highly visible at night? Does the basic uniform need to have simple properties that protect the wearer from some hazards, such as trousers and long sleeves?
Once the safety issue is addressed, departments should consider a uniform's user-friendliness, especially for response times. A few departments have elected to dress their personnel in one-piece jumpsuits to reduce the time needed to dress for a response, but are they saving more than a few seconds? You way wish to conduct your own experiments to test this. Of course, some uniform components can be slept in while others shouldn't be.
Care and durability are also factors in user-friendliness. Do you want the uniform to be wash and wear or dry clean only? Will they fade or unravel after repeated washings? Some fabrics are susceptible to stains while others are not. How easy are perspiration stains to remove? If your crews sleep in their uniforms, you should consider wrinkle-free options or devote time for ironing. In addition, special laundering procedures may be required to maintain safety properties.
All of the uniform objectives discussed here will have varying degrees of importance depending upon the city. What may be a necessity in one jurisdiction may be completely unimportant in another. Whether you are the chief and make all the uniform decisions or you are on a uniform committee, your goals and objectives should still be well-defined. Otherwise, how will you know if you have done a good job or not? If you don't know where you are going, how do you know when you get there?
A 25-year member of the fire service, Capt. Mica Calfee is currently a station captain with the Irving (Texas) Fire Department. He has served as a firefighter, driver, paramedic, fire and EMS instructor, dispatch and EMS supervisor, and state field examiner. Calfee has an associate's degree in fire protection technology.