Fire Department Bugles: A Simple Guide


fire department bugle

If you’ve ever seen a firefighters badge you may have noticed what looks like bugles, but what is the history and meaning behind fire department bugles?

Every fire crew member has a defined place within the service as part of a strong hierarchy. Each rank has its own badge with different symbols. If you are new to the firefighting profession, or about to apply, you may be interested to know what the different badges mean.

What are those items in the image and why are they called bugles? How many can you wear and where did the image come from?

In this article, I will provide a quick guide on the subject to help clear up some of the confusion over the symbol. Yes, technically, they are trumpets rather than bugles and, yes, we will debate the correct term for a long time to come.

I want to look at the significance of the item, rather than the name, with its role in communications and as a status symbol in the service. From there, I will discuss some of the ways that you’ll be wearing bugles on your uniform.

What is a “bugle” anyway?

First of all, I need to point out that some people do have a problem with the use of the term bugle to describe the instruments used – both those used on-scene and those depicted in the insignia of a firefighter.

If we want to be technical about it, firefighters haven’t ever used bugles in the traditional sense.

Bugles as musical instruments were, and in some cases still are, used in military settings. The items used in the old days of firefighting were actually speaking trumpets.

But, that doesn’t have quite the same impact and grandeur, does it? They are traditionally known as bugles and I will use both terms as is appropriate in this guide.

The history and meaning behind fire department bugles

Communication is essential between firefighters during a major incident. Not only does everyone on scene need their initial instructions, but they all also need to be able to talk to each other during emergencies.

There are a lot of things that could go wrong during an operation in the blink of an eye and everyone needs to adapt in a safe, cohesive manner.

Radios are a good starting point for instructions from superiors to those in the fire or in the trucks. Hand signals are also essential in the fire when it is too noisy.

It is hard to imagine a time without radio communication. Our radio allows us to warn others about dangers in a building, talk strategy and signal in distress.

Two-way radios are a part of every fire truck to gain instructions enroute to an incident and to make sure that all units are on the same page.

In recent decades, this technology has progressed considerably with digital models with less interference. But these devices are a fairly modern idea. Two-way radios only made their way into all stations across the country in the 1950s.

Before that, there was a reliance on telegraph systems instead. Large fireboxes with cables and keys would send out coded messages to stations to alert them about fires and call for assistance.

Stations would train operators to give and receive the messages, but there was no way to communicate with trucks.

This also left no way of communicating between firefighters on the scene of a fire. However, early crews from the 1800s had the right idea.

Previously, those in command had no choice but to shout instructions to firefighters before and during the operation.

The best way to do so was through a speaking trumpet. Think of it a little like an old-fashioned megaphone with no way to amplify the sound of the voice but the shape of the conical structure.

They worked well enough for attracting people to circus events and attractions, so they would be enough to relay instructions to the crew.

It might sound comical to us now to image this occurring at a major fire. However, you have to remember that there wasn’t much else available back in the 1800s.

So, what does this have to do with the bugles on firefighter badges?

It is all about the chain of command. Don’t think about the bugle so much as a communication device these days but as a symbol of superiority and ranks within the fire department. (Click the link for our guide to the ranks and structure of fire departments)

It isn’t about the instrument that was used to amplify those instructions but the rank of the man doing so. The trumpet used during these calls would always stay in possession of the officer in charge.

It was his responsibility and typically hung from his neck alone.

In many ways, it was a symbol of his superior rank. As status symbols go, it does help to have something big and loud that you can show off.

Today, there is a similar chain of command. Every firefighter follows the orders of their lieutenant and makes sure to follow all instructions as they develop at the scene.

That said, there are also stories about fire department speaking trumpets being corked up for used as drinking vessel or used as a makeshift weapon in times of conflict.

But then, this was the 19th century so they probably weren’t as strict on drinking on the job or about their conduct.

Some of these tales may be exaggerated for effect. But, you have to imagine that a large blunt instrument like a speaking trumpet could be useful when dealing with potentially violent members of the public – or potential violent firefighters from competing stations in some cases.

Ceremonial presentation trumpets also emerged.

The significance of the trumpet evolved with time and there were two different types created. There was the plain trumpet that was used for day-to-day work with the service.

There was no point in embellishing this trumpet too much if it was little more than a functional tool and there was the potential for damage.

Then there was a more ornate version referred to as a presentation trumpet with much more intricate detail and designs. These were awarded to personnel like medals of honor to commemorate the duties of that officer.

Sometime companies would also use them as prizes in competitions with other departments. You may see some of these items in cases in your fire department if they are great historical or sentimental significance.

The development of the iconic bugle for firefighters

In time, that symbol of superiority would go to be used on the badges of firefighters to signify their rank within the department.

The strict hierarchy of the fire service, with all its different ranks, means that firefighters on each level can showcase their position with their own badge or insignia on their uniform.

When you get promoted through the ranks, it is an honor to earn a new badge that depicts this achieve and to wear it with pride.

Firefighter:

If you think that you are going to get to wear a bugle on your uniform once you become a fully qualified firefighter, then you’re out of luck.

Some probationary firefighters may hope that they will get to have one as a symbol of their graduation into full service. But, this isn’t the case.

You see, firefighters don’t historically have any need for a bugle. They were the tools of commanding officers only. So, it makes sense that you would need to be promoted further to earn that badge.

Lieutenant:

You don’t actually get to wear a bugle on your uniform until you reach the role of lieutenant.

As you rise through the ranks as a firefighter, you gain more trumpets on your badge. In some ways, this single bugle on the uniform of the lieutenant is perhaps the most significant as it best reflects the original speaking trumpet.

The lieutenant has much the same role, guiding his crew and giving instructions on how to deal with the situation at hand. A real speaking trumpet would be highly impractical these days, so it is nice to have one stitched into the fabric as a reminder of this duty.

Captain:

A captain has two bugles side by side like gold bars.

This shows a simple progression in the system where you get an extra image on your badge to signal your promotion. At this point, it all makes a lot of sense. But, from there, it can get a bit confusing.

Battalion Chief:

Some battalion chiefs will have three bugles, this time crossed over in a star-like shape. Others will have two crossed bugles instead.

The design depends on the hierarchy in the department and the number of other officers between them and the fire chief. If there are still other assistant chiefs and other, higher roles than the two crossed bugles will be used.

This means that you don’t have the same number of bugles as your superior. But, the crossed design shows that you have progressed above Captain.

If there is no-one between the chief and the battalion chief, then the battalion chief could have up to four crossed bugles.

This will all make sense within a department but can look odd when you see battalion chiefs from different departments side-by-side.

Fire Chief:

The fire chief is the last one in the ranks and therefore has the most bugles on their uniform.

The chief will have five bugles, and this is the absolute maximum, which is probably just as well as five crossed bugles look more like a star than a series of bugles.

On that note, some personnel may not wear fire department bugles at all, they may get stars instead.

Not all firefighters wear bugles

The use of stars means is that you may not get to wear a bugle until much later. Or, chiefs may decide that lower ranks get bugles and higher ranks get stars.

Also, in some department’s stars are used to depict years of service.  Where I work, the stars are stitched onto the sleeve of your class A uniform and each star indicates 5 years of service.

There has also been another interesting debate in recent times about the direction of bugles on the badge.

It seems that some captains have handed out badges with the bugles horizontal and many firefighters cannot understand why that would be the case. They should point straight down.

In most cases, these badges are sewn into the uniforms of firefighters. It is safer and more cost-effective to have these fabric badges and it also allows departments to spell out the rank of the firefighter in clear letters.

This is better for those on-scene that might not be familiar with the crew and need to locate the right people in a hurry.

There are some cases where firefighters will get to wear a badge that is a more formal pin. This is where we see those decorative shapes with the bugles molded into brass. They look much nicer and are most often used on dress uniforms.

Finally, the significance of the fire department bugle for you as a firefighter or hopeful will depend on your aspirations within the fire service and the approach of the department you work for.

You may be in a department that is proud of the tradition of the bugle, still uses that name and awards them on promotion right through the ranks. They may even have the real thing on display somewhere.

Or, you may be part of a department that discarded the term bugle long ago and focuses more on stars on their badges. If it is the latter, you could soon find yourself in line for a promotion where you get to proudly wear one of these bugles/speaking trumpets on your uniform.

Whatever the current viewpoints of your department regarding bugle and your potential for wearing them, you have to admit that the history of the bugle in the fire service is interesting.

Not only do we have an antique tool that led to the evolution of communication devices, but that simple trumpet also became an iconic symbol for the fire service.

The captains of the 19th century probably would never have guessed that in the 21st century we would be casting fire department bugles in bronze and arguing over their name.

Other resources you may be interested in:

Firefighter Shift Schedules and Working Hours Explained

History of the Maltese Cross

The Fireman’s Prayer: A Simple Guide

Can Firefighting Really Cause Cancer?

Sources:

https://www.nycfiremuseum.org/history_colonial.cfm

https://www.fasnyfiremuseum.com/content/Collections/fire_equipment_.asp

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