Stay Classy Fire Service

Have we lost our class? 

There was a time not very long ago, about one-hundred years or so, when leaving the house meant looking your best.  It was rare to walk the public streets of America and not see men and boys dressed in full suits with dress hats and women and girls outfitted to the nines. Back then, it was never considered dressing up, it was just merely getting dressed. There was a respectable classiness about that era. Your grandparents likely lived this life and witnessed it’s decline.
This era of dapper public dress began with the earliest English settlers in what is now Massachusetts. A year after arriving from to the “New World” there was a clothing crisis. The earlier settlers didn’t have clothing stores or the means to make fabric. The only clothing items they had was what they packed on the ship. They would use blankets and garments to patch torn clothes, all they had is what they brought. A year or so after landing, an emergency order for clothing was made to England. They ordered a few hundred suits and a few hundred dresses. One defining reason for the classiness of yester-year’s clothing was that the fabric was very stiff. It didn’t have any kind of stretching characteristic like clothes today. The static nature of the material made buttons the logical fastening choice. There was a cultural expectation of how people should appear in public.
The U.S. Navy actually gets the credit for Canadians_on_strike_1920inventing the T-Shirt as an undergarment around the time of the Spanish-American War. Before then…T-Shirts didn’t even exist. In similar fashion, Tennis Champion Rene LaCoste invented the polo shirt in Europe in 1927. The T-Shirt slowly began to gain popularity until an art explosion occurred in the 60’s. T-Shirts were blasted with painted logos and sayings.
Fast Forward to today and it’s hard to walk through Walmart without seeing a part of someone’s body that you’ll never be able to erase from your mind.  It’s almost as if by choosing to shop at Walmart it’s expected that you’re going to see something horrible and unforgiving. But this highlights the extreme swing in what’s culturally acceptable attire. If you think about it, the people in the 1920’s were far more poverty stricken than anyone living in America today. They knew 100 years ago that the key to success in any socioeconomic level was leaving the house looking your best. The poorest kid on the street still owned a suit.
If you’ve made it to this point you’re probably thinking.. WTH man… What’s with the history lesson, I thought this was a fire service article?
It is and I’ll prove it.
The Fire Service has been no exception to this historical downward trend in public-dress fashion. What used to be the every day fire station uniform has become our special-event “Class A” dress uniform and what used to be our under-garments, are now our outer-garments.  In an era when the entire general population wore suits and dresses in public, the fire department had to maintain a step above simply because they were public servants and we have an image to uphold. It’s important for public servants to always be dress professionally and in a manner where they stand out from the general public. Proper uniforms give the impression of the ability to restore order. A commanding presence among what might be a chaotic mess.

As our culture of public dress has become less than respectable, the fire department has followed suit.  Of course every department has it’s own uniform standard or policy. When I worked a fire season in San Diego County it was every fire department’s policy to wear Class B (Button down) shirts when in public especially when eating meals.

My issue here is that as time passes, we start seeing the normalization of substandard uniform dress within the firehouse. In the last 100 hundred years, firemen-sliderfirefighters started with full Class A uniform and bell crown uniform hats for daily station wear and slowly trickled our way down to uniform T-shirts in some departments. Uniform pants with a tucked in T-Shirt does not readily scream professionalism. The more Fire Chief’s who issue T-Shirts as an acceptable firefighter uniform, the more comfortable we all become with seeing it. And the more comfortable we become seeing it, the more normal it will be to have our professional public servants showing up to assist the public(customer) in T-Shirts.

What appears to be an effort to save ourselves from the normalization of the T-Shirt uniform has brought about the uniform polo shirt. Sure, the polo has a collar and the attempt of being a buttoned shirt, but it’s really just a graduated T-Shirt, or in some circles leisure-wear for Ivy League-rs. We should not be fooling ourselves here. T-Shirts and Polo Shirts are not professional attire. Are they acceptable to wear under your fire gear? Of course. Out in public? No way man.

It’s the difference between showing up on scene looking like this    


or showing up like this.




And the difference between a bunch of folks in T-Shirts


And a bunch of professionals in uniform


The price difference between an NFPA compliant polo and an NFPA compliant uniform short sleeve shirt is $10. But the image factor takes that $10  and makes your firefighters look like a million bucks.  The UPS delivery driver and the pizza delivery man should not be making a delivery to the firehouse looking more professional than your firefighters.

Fire department image is just as important as everything else we do.  Our trucks are giant billboards and our people are agents of customer service. A good majority of the time, it’s the public’s perception of our image that makes or breaks an interaction. I urge all the chief’s out there to think next time you make a uniform purchase or policy. Class B uniforms should be the national standard. It should also be the public’s expectation of their public services.  Taking pride in our image and realizing that every trip out of the fire station is an opportunity to leave a lasting impression on the people we serve.  Perhaps we can be the driving force behind what’s acceptable to wear in public…Probably not.. but a guy can dream.