What Does the Thin Red Line REALLY Mean?


When we say the words thin red line, we bet the first thing that comes to mind is the movie starring Woody Harrelson, Adrien Brody, Sean Penn, and George Clooney, right? Yet some American flags are decorated not with alternating red and white stripes, but one red stripe only. What does this mean?

American flags with a thin red line honor fallen or injured firefighters and the sacrifices they’ve made. The alteration to the flag is meant as nothing but a sign of respect, but others have taken it differently, which can make the thin red line a controversial topic with some people.

If you still have questions about American flags sporting the thin red line, you won’t by the time you’re done reading this article. Ahead, we’ll talk further about what the thin red line really means as well as whether it’s disrespectful. 

What Does the Thin Red Line on the American Flag Refer To?

Long before 1998 when The Thin Red Line was released in theaters, that term had already been in the vernacular. The original usage of the term in the 19th century was more in-tune with the movie’s plot: war. 

The British Empire in 1854 and their 93rd Sutherland Highlanders Unit were embroiled in the Battle of Balaclava, which was a part of the broader Crimean War. When the military forces staved off the enemy with very little distance between them, a creative reporter came up with a descriptive term that eventually morphed into the thin red line. 

We’re sure you’re wondering right now what the heck all that has to do with firefighting. We’re getting to that.

But before we can, we have to explain the thin blue line.

The thin blue line is a version of the American flag that features a blue base with 50 stars. Instead of 13 alternating white and red stripes though, one of the stripes is eye-catching blue. 

The blue is in support of policemen, who often wear blue uniforms. 

Borne from the thin blue line is the thin red line, which now doesn’t refer to war at all but is instead another variation of the US flag. Rather than a blue line under the block of stars, this flag has a red line instead.

We know what you’re going to say: okay, but all American flags have red lines. That’s why most red-line flags are grayscale so the red line stands out even more distinctively. 

As for what it represents, the thin red line is in support of firefighters, especially those we’ve lost in the line of duty. 

Is the Thin Red Line Flag Disrespectful? 

Variations on the American flag are worth talking about more now than perhaps ever. After all, in the 2010s, the Blue Lives Matter movement began in support of NYPD police officers, which appropriated the thin blue line. 

We live in a time where opinions towards police are very divisive, although that’s not so much the case with firefighters.

That’s why you might be surprised to learn that many people do view the thin red line flag as disrespectful to our country.

It’s not necessarily that everyone who shares this opinion knows the meaning of the thin red line. They just see that an American flag has been altered from its original red, white, and blue colors with 13 white and red stripes. To them, it’s a desecration of the flag, as the American flag is supposed to represent something sacred.

Others know what the thin red line (and the thin blue line, for that matter) mean. Even though they might support the intention behind the thin red line, they can’t support the perceived desecration of the American flag. 

No matter your take on whether the thin red line is simply a variation of the American flag or an unacceptable desecration, there is a very viable concern that the thin red line could go in the same direction as the thin blue line.

Some worry that the thin red line could be taken in much the same context since it has a similar meaning to the thin blue line. This just amplifies the controversy.   

What Does a Thin Yellow Line Mean? How About a Thin Gray Line?

Interestingly, it’s not only firefighters and policemen who have modified the American flag in support of their fallen brothers and sisters. Across related industries, you’ll see flags with central lines in a whole assortment of colors. 

For instance, there’s the thin yellow line. A grayscale flag with a bright yellow line in the center is in support of dispatchers. The color might be gold rather than yellow, but the meaning is still the same. 

If you see a flag with all white stripes except for one central gray stripe, this design supports corrections officers. A flag with gray stripes and only one white stripe is an ode to emergency medical services or EMS.

A thin green line is to honor the military while a thin orange line on the American flag is for search and rescue professionals. 

Compared to flags with a thin red line and especially with a thin blue line, you’re a lot less likely to see American flags in these other colors. However, they do exist, and all for the same harmless reason as flags with a thin red line. 

How Can You Show Your Support of Firefighters with the Thin Red Line Flag?

You don’t mind the thin red line flag as an emblem of the hard work and the many sacrifices your local fire department has made and continues to make so your town or city can be safe and happy. You’d like to show your support, but how?

Here are some avenues to consider. 

Display the Flag on Your Property 

You can find thin red line flags almost anywhere you search online. Wave the flag proudly on your property. As you drive by your local fire department, you’ll be heartened to see they’re doing the same. And who knows, your bold statement could inspire some shy neighbors to put out their thin red line flags as well. 

Wear It on Your Clothes

You don’t only have to show your firefighter pride with a thin red line American flag. You can also purchase clothing of all sorts that features the stars and stripes with that one red line proudly displayed. 

Spread Awareness in Your Neighborhood 

More than likely, not everyone in your city or town knows what the thin red line on the American flag represents. Take the chance when you can to educate people in your life on what the flag represents. Many of them who might have taken offense to the thin red line flag will probably have a softer stance.  

Donate to a Firefighting Organization 

If you’d rather show a quieter sign of support, you can always donate to firefighting and fire responder charities and organizations. Here are some charities you might consider:

Whether you can donate only a small amount of money or a more significant quantity, any of these charitable organizations would be grateful to receive your donation! It will make a major difference in the lives of active and retired firefighters, their families, and their communities. 

Finally, the thin red line is more than a movie, it’s a show of support for fallen firefighters. Although the thin red line is mired in controversy since it’s a modification of the American flag, others see it for what it is: a sign of respect, not of desecration.

Now that you understand the meaning of the thin red line, you too can better support firefighters!

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