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
inventing 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, firefighters 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.
I totally agree. I was always the odd Lt hat wore a button down shirt whenever out in public (except for doing the weekly grass cutting). I lived the trend from going to polo shirts to t-shirts to shorts. It looks pretty stupid that f/f’s show up wearing shorts and a job shirt when the temperature is barely 40 degrees (they do it because the contract says you can). Lets get a handle on it, most are either issued uniforms or receive a stipend, lets start looking professional!
I agree and disagree. For the departments that run 5 calls a day, sure the button down is great and in public, but if you actually talk to the citizens who pay taxes, they dont care who wears what when you show up, we can wear tutus and sombreros. The picture of the guys in DC isnt fair, they run their balls off, in sweltering heat, maybe they were working out before the call? Some departments run more calls after midnight than the sweethearts who are worried about button downs. The guy in the shorts and t shirt will be interior while you button up your shirt
The FD I retired from allowed polo shirts (Dark blue for the ranks of firefighter through Captain, white for the Deputy Chiefs and Chief, with embroidered badges and rank insignia from May 1st through September 30th. The button down shirts are worn from October 1st through April 30th. T shirts were allowed in the summer for training, working out and after 20:00 hours year round. Polos or button downs were required for doing inspections. If you were working out, you went to the call wearing your gym wear.
A friend’s FD used to require that all personnel reporting to work and leaving work wear their dress blues, then change after roll call. That is total overkill. John and Jane Q. Public dozens;t care what style of uniform you’re wearing when they call 911, they want you to show up readu=y to work.
So I couldn’t agree with you more Jon. The level of professionalism is only displayed when we are called to duty,but, in this day and age, we must be conciencious of public image and spending. That being said, how do we justify spending extra tax payer money to look good? If we are truly public service, why should vanity play a role??? We have an obligation to the public to justify our spending. Every dollar counts…. Rather than blowing tax payer money to spare an image, would you rather have better funded training, the newest safest gear, and a competitive salary?? Or to look good while we are on scene for ten minutes and leave a positive public image in our minds???
Like I said before, I couldn’t agree with you more, but, where do we go from here?
Unexpectedly, this article seems to have spawned some debate. I never imagined the idea of looking professional when interacting with the public would cause such a debate. In my mind, image was always important. Your points here further digs into the crux of this topic. I’m planning a Stay Classy Part 2 in response to all of the feedback.
There have been a lot of constructive ideas presented. Let’s build on it. One thing that’s made me chuckle is how many Firefighters were commenting on the heat of a uniform. I’m a fire officer who works in a desert environment. I definitely understand ambient heat.
Stay tuned brother, I’d like to delve into this further.
You basically called out FWFD for looking “non-professional”. I train 5-6 hours a shift, sorry if a call comes in and I’m sweaty in a t-shirt and pants.
I only wish that I had seen this sooner. Like you, I’m a firm believer in professionalism in the fire service (clean rigs, proper uniform, good bedside manner on EMS runs, etc), but I take a little exception to some of the points made in the article. Having spent my career working and volunteering in an area where the humidity will curl the paper on the clipboard while you’re doing daily rig checks, changing your uniform shirt 3 or 4 times in a single shift during the summer can be the norm – and that’s one of the reasons we’re issued t-shirts by the truckload and it’s our standard uniform. Granted, we’re not the desert, but the combined heat and humidity does a number on a dress uniform worn on a daily basis. It’s safe to say that the 315,000 citizens we protect are happy with our presentation, as our bond referendum requests are voter approved between 94% and 96% each time – even higher than the school’s requests. Thanks for discussion and dialogue, brother!
I agree and disagree. The department I work for is having this same debate right now as well. Our policy states that between 0800-2300 hours we are to be dressed in Class B (Nomex button down and Nomex pants), and the company officer or BC can decide if he will let the crews wear T-shirts. After 2300 hours we can dress down to gym shorts and T-shirts, short or long sleeve, but must wear bunker pants over gym shorts when responding to any call. When training, doing yard work, “extensive cleaning”, working out or for whatever reason the FF has, we can wear our t-shirts and respond in them.
The price to outfit one FF is on average $200 for 1 class b uniform ($100 for the button down, $100 for the pants). When we start we are issued 3 full uniforms, and can order up to 3 uniforms once a year. We have about 100 members on our department, so you do the math. It’s expensive to look good! Guys that ride the medic usually wear the class b all day, and guys on the truck/engine have a little slack.
There are SO many more points to make, but we’re in the day and age where every aspect of our duties are under the gun. I would really like to think that our appearance wouldn’t make headlines, but we all know it’s only a matter of time until they do. I think both are respectable, and I just show up, wear what I’m told to and ride what I’m told to ride, then go home at the end of my tour. I’m not in it for the politics, but T-shirts sure are more comfortable when its 100 degrees with 70% humidity.
Professionalism is far more about what and how you do things than it is about your appearance! Uniform appearance is a great way to identify individuals as being from a particular group or organization, however, has no bearing on the quality of service provided. Firefighters uniforms should identify the individual as a firefighter but should be practical. A uniform you are afraid to get dirty or destroyed is not a practical garment! Not to mention Class B’s are generally restrictive in movement and don’t have properties that make them comfortable to wear especially in the heat.
When I look at the photos provided I don’t see firefighters doing EMS work and firefighters posing for a goofy photo and I’ll let you guess which one I consider to be unprofessional behavior. The photos also make me question whether we are talking about fire fighting or fire based EMS….
I don’t mean this to say that a firefighter should show up to work looking like a slob! Your clothing should be clean and tidy but should allow you to work without being restrictive.
Also understand that I live and work in an area where there are many people who look at someone in full regalia from any service or job and think, “That guys an asshole!” Or “This guy thinks he’s a hot shot!”. That completely breaks the chance for trust between us and the people we help!
“There’s nothing more professional than being good”. -Aaron Fields
I’m just a nobody, so my opinion means little to nothing. But as long as you don’t look like a slob, work hard when it’s time to do so, and act professionally, it doesn’t matter if you’re in a t-shirt or a polo. Fighting fire and all of the rest of the work we do requires us to get dirty and sweaty. Freshly pressed uniforms and sparkling rigs makes me think “maybe that’s all they care about, cause if it ain’t dirty it ain’t working!” Should we have pride in our job? Damn right we should. But we are not the police, where the uniform projects a level of authority and use of force (another topic for another day). T-shirts and polos are just fine in my book. Be safe everyone.
I’m not into firefighting and everything but in my opinion, it doesn’t really matter if a fireman is wearing shirt or polo for as long as they do what they have to do in time of call. Anyway, you made a good point though still a great post. Thanks!
Good read! I’m no 20 year veteran, but I do agree with you 100%. I’m with Montgomery Fire/Rescue in Montgomery, Alabama. We still wear the button up daily until 2000, then you can answer in the t-shirt. I’ve had my gripes just like others about it, especially during our famous Alabama summers, but in my 10 1/2 years I’ve come to appreciate our standard. I like your point about public servants looking like they have the ability to restore order. Every time we put on the uniform we’re leaders of our communities. Thanks again and be safe!
They also used to drink, smoke, play cards, pool etc everyday.. Just asking if the old days where the good days should we go back to that as well.
As with most anything posted; this has started a debate. As it should! We all have our opinions. We should all share them, with civility I might add. I can share my view as a 27 year veteran who completed the first 20 as an active duty Air Force firefighter. Of course, we wore our military utility uniforms for duty hours, while our federal civilian counterparts wore their class B uniforms. Button downs at roll call and anytime we went out of the station on normal business. T-shirts any other time. I’ve been stationed all over the world. There were places I had to change into a second uniform due to the humidity, but we always put our button down shirt on when we went out. Both civilian and military. We looked professional. Back in the firehouse, we were in tees. Then the polo era began in the early 2000’s. I can agree with the polo. It still looks crisp and clean in my opinion. With the caveat that it does matter which brand/style you choose.
I’ve been retired from the military for 7 years now, and have been that long into my second career as a federal civilian firefighter. I’ve reached the rank of assistant chief, and I work at fire headquarters. Obviously, my uniforms are easier to maintain these days! We wear white polos nowadays. But we still have our class B button downs for anytime we may be attending functions with military brass, or high profile senior civilian public servants. And I can tell you we have those regularly. (POTUS, SECDEF were just here in fact) I like the polos in the summer when it’s hot and humid. I still look professional. I’m not opposed to the button down either. I suppose I fall somewhere in the middle.
In the end, to me, as long as you wear your uniform properly, you can still look professional while also acting professional. I’ve been places where I was the only guy with his shirt tucked in and clean shaven. That irks me more than whether you have a tee on or a polo, or a button down. I’ve seen five o’clock shadow on guys with button downs on. That just doesn’t look professional to me.
So wear your uniform with pride and take pride in your personal hygiene and appearance and you can still present a good public image. That’s my two cents.
As a 30 year firefighter, I can say, I’ve never had one complaint about how I dressed. As a volunteer, responding from home while doing yard work to my professional career in a busy urban department, if I projected confidence, I did my job as I should, and I treated the “customer” right, they were happy. Professionalism does not come from my dress, it comes from my actions. Where I work full time, I can not tell you the number of times I’ve been called a officer or the police when we have class B’s on. Crime is high where I work and I particularly don’t like being identified as a police officer. It is unsafe for us. We have embroidered shirts but that doesnt matter, it looks official, and intimidating to the public. If we are attending events through out the city, yes put the button down on. If we are on the medic going into the dark apartment complex known to house MS13 gang members, I dont want to look so official. I do think polos are a good balance, and not usually confused with police officers. Just my opinion but saying how to dress across the board is like saying how to load your hose across the board. One size does not fit all. Demographics, run volume, types of runs, work to be accomplished, and much more should be considered.