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Fire Fighting Symbols

Maltese Cross

The Maltese Cross is derived from the emblem of the medieval military order of Saint John of Jerusalem, also known as the Knights Hospitaller who originally ran a hospital in Jerusalem for pilgrims to the Holy Land and then became their protectors.

Knights of St. John of Jerusalem

There is a popular story concerning the connection between the Knights of Malta and fire fighters: The Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem (later known as the Knights of Malta) fought in the First Crusade against the Saracen. The Saracen used a novel and terrifying weapon consisting of glass containers full of a flammable mixture of naphtha. During a siege by the Crusaders, the Saracen would throw these onto the besiegers which would saturate them with this highly flammable liquid, at which time the Saracen would throw a torch into the midst of the Crusaders, setting them on fire. The Knights of St. John took it upon themselves to pull the Crusaders to safety, put out their flames and treat their injuries. Because of their selfless heroics, the Maltese cross has come to symbolize a willingness and commitment to brave danger in order to rescue others from a fiery death.

Cross of the Knights of Malta

After the loss of the Holy land to the Muslims, the order established a base on the Island of Malta where in the 16th Century their symbol, a white cross on a red field was redesigned as 4 white arrowheads arranged in the shape of a cross on a red field and the order came to be known as the Knights of Malta. After being ejected from the island by Napoleon in 1798 the Knights reformed as a worldwide aid organization, providing first aid training, first aid services and emergency medical services to the victims of natural disasters, epidemics and armed conflicts.

Fire Fighter Maltese Cross

A modified form of the Maltese Cross has been adopted by virtually all Firefighters of the United States and Canada and is used by the International Association of Fire Fighters. This cross resembles the original Maltese cross with its eight outer points but has been modified by the inclusion of a central circle and bending out the V-shape between these points to follow the shape of the inner circle.

To the original Knights of Malta the eight outer points stood for:
Glory and honor
Contempt of death
Helpfulness towards the poor and the sick
Respect for the church.

To the modern organization of the Knights of Malta the points stand for:

To a Fire Fighter the points stand for:



The pike seen on the Maltese cross and other Firefighter emblems is derived from the pike carried by early firefighters. It was used to pull down burning roof straw and wooden shingles.



firefighter's helmet

The helmet is based on a protective leather helmet “leather head” originating in 18th century America. It was designed specifically for use by firefighters, unlike earlier helmets which were almost universally based on military ones. The leather was used because it is non-conductive and a better insulator from heat than the metal of previous designs. The front piece is held onto the helmet using an eagle in the US and a beaver in Canada. The eagle dates to about 1825 when an unknown sculptor designed it for a firefighters memorial and has been in use ever since. The beaver used in Canada represents the hard work, focused mission and undying dedication that firefighters are known for. The leather helmet has been an internationally recognized symbol of firefighters since the early days of American firefighting. Traditionally, Black is the color of a firefighters helmet, Red is the color of a Captains helmet and White is the color of a Chiefs helmet.




The speaking horn or bugle was used by officers to communicate to firefighters engaged with a fire. In the US it has become the symbol of leadership within a firefighting organization.

In the current use of the bugle to denote rank
Firefighters, engineers technicians and Sergeants have no bugles
One bugle stands for a Lieutenant
Two crossed bugles is a Captain
Three crossed bugles is a Deputy or Assistant Chief
Four crossed bugles is a Chief or Deputy Chief
Five crossed bugles is a Chief
(Traditional usage had the Captain with two side-by-side bugles and two crossed bugles stood for a Battalion or District Chief.)




The nozzle is a conical metal fitting used to direct water from a pressurized source, usually a hose or a swiveling metal tube. Being able to direct a stream of water represented a huge advance in firefighting from the original bucket brigade.


Fire Pot

fire pot

The (sometimes) flaming globe on a stick depicts the long pole with a fire-pot on the end which was used by firefighters in New Holland (later New York) who had the duty of lighting street lamps in addition to their duties as firefighters and night watchmen.




The ladder is used by firefighters to access upper levels of a building in order to fight fire and perform rescue operations.



firefighter's axe

The firefighters axe is primarily used to open doors and windows to gain access to a building during a fire. The traditional firefighters axe has a pick shaped poll (side of the head opposite the blade).



pulaski axe

An axe used by forest firefighters, it has a mattock blade on the poll for use in digging fire breaks. Firefighting axes are usually painted bright colors.



leather bucket

Before the advent of water pumps and hoses the bucket (usually leather) and “bucket brigade” were the only way to direct water onto a fire.



fire hydrant "plug"

The familiar fire hydrant dates back to the log mains which transported water through early American cities and the “plugs” which were removed by firefighters in order to gain access to the water.



halligan forcible entry tool

A forcible entry tool used by firefighters to gain access to the insides of locked buildings. It is a specialized form of pry-bar.


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