AMU Fire & EMS Original Public Safety

First Responder Uniforms: Professionalism and Leadership

By Dr. Randall Hanifen
Edge Contributor

Over time, regular clothing has moved towards a more casual look and so have the uniforms of fire and rescue services. But opinions on first responders’ use of these less formal uniforms varies widely, depending upon a conversation’s participants.

Types of First Responder Uniforms

If you look back through the history of the fire service, we have worn uniforms ranging from dress uniforms to T-shirts and more casual pants. Use of a dress uniform, however, was more frequent in the past.

Policies and procedures for many fire department dictated that reporting for duty required the wearing of a Class A uniform (also known as a dress uniform) and lining up for inspection. Now, a lineup rarely occurs in most first responder organizations; it has been replaced by a coffee table pass-off from the previous shift.

Some departments require their personnel to wear a full uniform at the beginning of a shift and others require uniforms to be worn during business hours. However, it’s rare for first responders to wear their uniforms beyond what is expected for the day.

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Less formal uniforms typically involve a long-sleeved shirt, which is sometimes reserved for use during the winter months. For command officers, this shirt is accompanied by a tie and the shirt also has brass insignia and badges. Line officers wear sewn-on insignia patches, because metal badges can become caught on their gear.

Short-sleeved shirts with buttons are another type of more casual uniform. These uniforms are often used in the summer, as even top officers in many departments will have to be out in warmer weather at least some of the time. Like the long-sleeved shirts, the badges are metal or embroidered patches.

Emerging Trends in First Responder Uniforms

Polo shirts are an emerging trend in first responder uniforms. These types of shirts are often performance-type polos made from synthetic materials, which provide greater comfort in warmer weather and still look new after a few washes. All of the badges and insignia are sewn onto the shirts.

T-shirts are also becoming popular as part of a first responder uniform. These shirts can be screen-printed with first responder insignia or badges can be sewn onto the shirt.

Colors of Uniform Shirts

In most fire departments, there are different ranks of officers, as well as firefighters, emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and medics. Traditionally, firefighters have worn dark blue shirts for easy identification.

At the company officer and battalion chief level, the color of the uniform shirt ranges. Ideally, the color should allow a company officer or battalion chief to be quickly distinguished from other personnel; the company officer also needs to wear a color that won’t appear easily soiled.

Executive chiefs typically wear a white shirt as a part of their uniforms. There is little chance that the executive chief will become dirty during a workday, since an executive chief commonly works in an office all day.

One leadership philosophy advocates that all officers should wear the same dark blue shirt and only use a different insignia or badge to indicate their rank. Using the same color of shirt for everyone seems to be an increasing trend, and I have noted that it makes only a small difference in how firefighters view their leaders.

On the other hand, wearing uniforms of different colors serve a public purpose; this practice provides identity, trust and comfort to the victims of an emergency. The different uniform colors allow the public to quickly distinguish leaders from other first responders and understand who will make critical decisions about their emergency. Without this type of visual identification, other ways would be needed to calm emergency victims.

Helmet Colors and Leaders

I believe that chief officers (called command officers in some departments) must at least have white helmets and white shirts. Depending on the 911 call, these officers could be in firefighting personal protective equipment (PPE) or just in their station’s uniforms. The ability to quickly identify officers through white helmets or white shirts is critical to communication and continuity on the fireground.

At a recent fire involving multiple fatalities, for instance, a neighboring command officer was placed in charge of the emergency medical services branch. However, first responders reported that it was difficult to know who they were reporting to for their assignments, because the command officer’s appearance blended with the other firefighters.

I have personally experienced the same issue at a structure fire. The fire was broken into divisions, and I was assigned to be the Safety Officer. I wear a white coat and white helmet for my firefighting PPE.

I happened to be standing on the Charlie side (rear side) of the fire, and a division supervisor was assigned on that side. However, the division supervisor was not wearing a white helmet or a white coat.

One of the working crews then came out and provided me with their conditions, actions, and needs report, thinking from my appearance that I was the division supervisor. They wanted a decision and I had to direct them to the proper division supervisor, which caused a delay.

The Trend to Use the Same First Responder Uniforms Should Be Reversed

Wearing uniforms and maintaining consistent uniform colors for PPE are not only a tradition, but they are an important part of a command presence during 911 calls. We must reverse the current trend to put everyone in the same first responder uniforms, since this practice causes confusion in distinguishing leaders from lower-ranking personnel.

Dr. Randall Hanifen serves as a shift commander at a medium-sized suburban fire department in the northern part of the Cincinnati area. Randall is the CEO/principal consultant of an emergency services consulting firm, providing analysis and solutions related to organizational structuring of fire and EMS organizations. He is the chairperson and operations manager for a county technical rescue team. From a state and national perspective, he serves as a taskforce leader for one of FEMA's urban search and rescue teams, which responds to presidential declared disasters. From an academic standpoint, Randall has a bachelor’s degree in fire administration, a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership, and a doctoral degree in business administration with a specialization in homeland security. He is the associate author of “Disaster Planning and Control” (Penwell, 2009), which provides first responders with guidance through all types of disasters.

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