The Thin Red Line - Robert Gibb 1888

Let’s Get Rid of this “Thin Red Line” Bulls**t

The Trap Fire and EMS Must Avoid

October 25 1854 – a Scots infantry regiment of the British army fired two volleys of musket shots toward charging Russian forces, who, though they never even came within 400 yards of the Scots, immediately broke into retreat. An Irish war correspondent, William H. Russell, called them a “thin red streak tipped with a line of steel” based on the color of their uniforms. An unimportant battle of a now obscure European war, it was shortened popularly into “the thin red line” in the British press… and the myth and cliché was born.

Stolen Valor and an Immoral Argument

In the early 1952, Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker, who was known for his policy that police “must stick together at any cost.” first alluded to the Crimean War myth, changing the color, using the “thin blue line” phrase in defense of his police department’s officers. After the infamous Bloody Christmas event in which more than fifty LAPD officers, most of them intoxicated, beat seven Mexican American youths “with wet towels and gloved fists until the room was covered with blood” IN THE CENTRAL POLICE STATION, Parker railed against civilian oversight and accountability with the phrase my “police are the thin blue line that stands between civilization and barbarism”. He even created a weekly TV show entitled “The Thin Blue Line” on local Los Angeles television to push that view. Only the police had the right to police the police. Any challenge to that idea was portrayed as not supporting law and order, and advancing the cause of “communism and anarchy”.

1952 L.A. Times Story on “Bloody Christmas”, Officers involved were only transferred or temporarily suspended for beating Mexican-Americans.

And it worked. Civilian oversight was ignored and the mantra spread through police stations from coast to coast in the following years. By 1965 the Massachusetts State police were using the phrase publically. Popularized by police fiction like Joseph Wambaugh’s immensely successful books and any number of movies and TV shows, it helped reinforce the “us versus everyone else” culture within the law enforcement community.

The Thin Blue Line Even Police Dare Not Cross

In many ways, the phrase entrapped the police themselves behind their own symbol. Police officers who report malfeasance or outright lawbreaking amongst their fellow officers are “Rats”, a term ironically borrowed from organized crime. It is usually at least a career ending decision, but can often be dangerous as well, with brother officers refusing to back-up the “Rat” in perilous situations. Is it any wonder why officers of color fail to report, or even sometimes participate in these events? You don’t have to be Frank Serpico to know what happens to a cop who strays over that “thin blue line”. And that is ingrained into every recruit, through popular media, training and the in-house culture.

Before you start thinking this is a diatribe against Law Enforcement, let me stop you for a minute. Its not.

I have worked alongside many great and truly dedicated and honorable cops throughout the years. They have saved my ass on more than one occasion. I have also seen a police officer proudly proclaim – in front of his supervisor- that he had never seen a black or hispanic driver in his patrol area that he did not stop. They both snickered. The point is that the symbols chosen by law enforcement and the culture built around them, protect and encourage the bad, and limit the good.

The Symbols We Choose to Represent Us Are Important

We in Fire and EMS have a long history of service and many symbols of our own from which to choose. Certainly we have enough valorous acts and events in our history to fill that need without stealing the already stolen valor of others.

Everybody seems to want to get on the bandwagon, even arguing on social media about which color they should choose to represent their profession.

The Thin Brown Line of Sewer and Waste Treatment Professionals

These “Thin Lines” are symbols of exclusion, warfare and “us against them” where Fire and EMS are by definition inclusive. Law enforcement, by its very nature, is a confrontational profession. They are punitive. We are, or are supposed to be, supportive. In the extremes, they take lives, while we save them. The two roles have very different objectives and viewpoints, and should never be confused. When they are, the results are generally disastrous.

In researching this article I came across this “training” video advocating for the use of fire hoses to aid law enforcement in subduing suspects. This is a horrific idea, on many levels. One, of course, is that a hose stream can be lethal. While it has been used a couple of times, only once, the Seattle incident, can I find where the suspect was not actually killed in the end, either by police or BY THE HOSE STREAM ITSELF. Our tools, either for firefighting or EMS are for the preservation of life and property, and should NEVER be a weapon. The MOVE incident in Philadelphia, which severely damaged the reputation and trust in the Philadelphia Fire Department for decades, is the direct result of the blurring of the lines between the duties of Law Enforcement and the Fire/EMS Service.

We have seen this movie before:

To supercharge the water jets, firefighters had funneled the flow of two hoses into one nozzle, packing it with such ballistic fury it dislodged bricks from buildings. These jets were driven across the kids’ bodies, lacerating their flesh, tearing clothing off their backs; hitting the elm trees in nearby Kelly Ingram Park, the blasts ripped off the bark. The children, knocked to the pavement, crawled away; some struggled to their feet with bloody noses and gashes on their faces.

Washington Post report on the use of fire hoses on children during the Birmingham children’s crusade for Civil Rights, 1963
Firefighters use hoses on protesters during the Birmingham children’s crusade, when hundreds of students took to the streets to protest segregation. (AP)

The attacks on the Birmingham, Alabama child protesters by firefighters is my earliest memory of firefighters in the news. A decade and a half later when I first joined the Fire and EMS ranks, we were just beginning to repair the damage done and regain the trust of the communities nationwide. It was hard earned.

Even so, when I later worked in two major cities, even in the worst of neighborhoods, we were looked upon with trust. In neighborhoods where police never entered without at least two or three patrol cars, there existed a truce of sorts when it came to rescue personnel. We were there to help, and they knew that. I never worried about attacks us for simply being there. We were never targeted. That should always be our goal.

Y’all Ain’t Part of the Club.

To me, the effort to so closely align with the Law Enforcement community and its ill begotten symbolism is both futile, and ultimately self-injurious. Blur the lines between us and you not only put yourself further into harm’s way, but reduce your effectiveness. I can not count the times I was able to obtain medical information from a reluctant patient by simply stating that I was not a police officer, and anything told to me would remain confidential.

If you think the Law Enforcement community thinks of us as brothers, you are sadly mistaken. We are not part of their family, we are at best second cousins once removed, the ones invited to Thanksgiving only with a groan, after thinking about possible inheritance issues.

If you think I’m exaggerating, and that we are not in competition with the Police… look at the relative budgets. Nation wide, direct police budgets are three times the sums spent on Fire and Rescue. Despite the fact that your are more than three times as likely to die from natural disaster than terrorism, FEMA – the equivalent of Fire-Rescue-EMS – is tucked away within Homeland Security, who is essentially a Law Enforcement agency.

Despite the steady drop in violent crime over the past three decades Police Budgets continually rise. Despite an increasing call load and demand for Fire/EMS, when a city gets into financial trouble, who gets laid off? Ever hear a police chief say, we are good, increase the Fire Department and EMS budget?

In many ways, the secret war of Law Enforcement versus Fire & EMS has already been fought. We LOST.

It is time we reclaim our Separate Identity

Dark blue uniforms, shield shaped badges, redundant “bat belts” with scissor holsters…even ballistic vests, we have, for no good reason, taken on the guise of law enforcement to our detriment. How close do you have to be to recognise that a badge says “Paramedic” or “Firefighter” rather than “Police Officer”? Put on a tactical helmet and vest… do you think you will be more welcomed or feared? What does your silhouette say at night?

“The uniform of the firemen while on duty consists of a dark blue suit of pilot cloth, red flannel shirt, and the old fire helmet. On ordinary occasions the members will wear a neat forage cap, of a similar pattern to the navy cap, with glazed cover. In front of the cap will be embroidered the initials “M.F.D.,” and the number of the company.” – Metropolitan Fire Department, City of New York, precursor to the FDNY, 1865.

Pretty easy to pick out the firefighters in their traditional red shirts.

Let’s reclaim the red shirted uniform, the “maltese” cross* badge… Third service EMS agencies can go to Green, say the color of an Oxygen tank, (The traditional white being impossible to keep clean on the street) and a Star of Life device. Be as distinct in appearance as our jobs are distinct from Law Enforcement.

Benjamin Franklin's Fire Mark
Benjamin Franklin’s Fire Mark

Let us have as our symbols such things as we have earned… the four interlocked hands of Ben Franklin’s Fire Mark, The star of life, the EKG tracing, the traditional fire helmet shape, the Firefighter’ Cross… those things that engender the trust of our communities and represent the honor we aspire to in our service to our fellow man.

*Many people erroneously believe that the stylized cross of the Fire Service is somehow related to the Order of St John and the Maltese Cross of the Crusades. It is not, but we will save that for another day.

2 thoughts on “Let’s Get Rid of this “Thin Red Line” Bulls**t

  1. A well researched & well-written article. Thank you for the history lesson, I am better informed.
    All things in context my thin blue and thin red line flags will remain flying because of what they mean to ME. I fly them in support of the professions as I know firsthand of the costs associated with choosing these as a career.

    While your history lesson accurately & truthfully depicts sickening events there are MILLIONS more events in law enforcement and fire service history that depict complete opposite stories.

    In a profession and in personal life, choices are made that are terrible, horrible,inhumane, unjust, even deadly. These make the news and cause citizens to rise up against them.

    Choices are also made that are NOT any of the aforementioned and these rarely make the news
    or will we see marches happening to applaud these efforts & accomplishments because doing the right thing is the expected standard for our society.

    Choices made by others in a historical context or present are theirs, not mine, I refuse to be labeled based on the actions of others that are similar to me. This is a core issue of racism, sexism, thinking the whole bushel is rotten because of one bad apple.

    I exercise my choice to support those who choose to serve and protect honorably in EMS, FIRE, POLICE IN DOING THE RIGHT THING.

    Like

  2. I agree with the author, having been both inside and outside the circle. Symbols and history trump any personal attachments. Loose the politics, let me do my job, I don’t expect praise and am not interested in anyone’s opinion.

    Like

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