According to statistics from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), there are over 1.1 million firefighters in the United States. Let's assume that represents at least 2.2 million fire department T-shirts owned by those firefighters, plus millions more worn by friends, relatives and neighbors.
When I see people wearing a fire department T-shirt, my reaction is that the other person may be a brother or sister firefighter—solely on the basis of the familiar Maltese Cross or similar insignia. It's pretty powerful that the simple act of wearing a department logo shirt can create such a strong sense of connection to the mission of public safety.
The question arises, is the person just wearing a shirt or do they actually belong to that department? And do they consequently strive to live the mission?
I have T-shirts from departments all around the country. If the shirts could talk, each would have a unique story to tell regarding a station visit or a fire service friendship that developed along the way. While my friends' department shirts are nice, in reality, I'm just wearing that department's shirt.
On the other hand, when I put my own department's shirt on, I immediately take ownership and strive to represent the department in the best possible way.
While the shirt itself is perhaps symbolic, long-term commitment to the organization is driven by what comes from inside—as opposed to what's written on the outside of the shirt. In my combination department, we've been fortunate to experience a 30% growth in volunteer membership over the past 24 months—to over 50 active volunteer members.
We continue to have our trials and tribulations, but in the end, the members who stay and own the mission are the people who show they care—and in turn, are cared for. The members that get it understand the significance of the department logo and what it means to be an active, contributing and positive part with the organization.
For some others, it becomes apparent that the shirt itself is more important than the values that are associated with the insignia.
To illustrate the point, our department recently put together a team of members to run in a local benefit race, making up a special T-shirt for the occasion. Our team was a mixture of seasoned and newer people, including our Explorer post.
While our members were happy with the shirts, the Explorers were especially thrilled to receive theirs. Their reactions were a refreshing shot in the arm for what it means to be a part of the team.
Similarly, at the completion of their probationary period, each probie looks forward to issuance of the company shirt and everything associated with attaining that important first milestone.
So beyond the obvious, what's the symbolism of a fire department shirt?
I'd argue that what's printed on the outside of the shirt means more when the wearer embodies their own personal conviction to the cause. Don't just talk about it, live the mission.
And while living the mission and wearing the shirt doesn't automatically rule out healthy differences of opinion, respecting what the shirt stands for is the glue that keeps the organization strong. Accordingly, the stronger the earned connection to the organization, the more significant the person's pride in the act of wearing the company shirt.
We all know respect is a two-way street. If we disrespect or otherwise minimize the importance of commitment to the department's mission, it's just a shirt. Literally, we should wear the pride on our sleeve.
So next time you put on a fire department T-shirt, reflect for a moment about what the simple act of putting on the shirt says about you and your department. It's a good reminder for all us to live up the mission.