By Matthew Caward
At every fire station across the country, the American flag is hoisted atop a flagpole in prominence as a symbol of our service, commitment and resolve – a constant reminder to everyone that the members of the fire service are available day and night, ready to respond.
When tragedy strikes, the flag is lowered to show respect for those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice. Similarly, the flag is a central element of a first responder funeral, as the flag is draped over a casket. The honor guards then follow a strict protocol for how to remove the flag from the casket and fold it – typically 13 times to be exact – before presenting the flag to the fallen firefighter’s next of kin as a token of respect and honor.
The ultimate sacrifice
The American flag-folding ceremony honors the many firefighters who have made the ultimate sacrifice – a sacrifice I have mourned many times throughout my career: the loss of 343 of our Bravest on 9/11, four months after I swore my oath to serve in this calling; the loss of 19 hotshots – including two friends – near my hometown of Prescott, Arizona, on the 2013 Yarnell Hill fire; the loss of my colleague, brother and friend Lt. Matthew King, who gave his life along with three sheriff’s officers in Albuquerque, N.M., where I currently serve.
These are the sacrifices represented by a flag flown at half-mast or a flag-draped coffin. Through a flag-folding ceremony, we can further honor our fallen comrade’s memory and give their family a physical piece of this honor and respect. The flag-folding ceremony is a powerful way to capture the rich traditions of our country and our service to this nation. But first, we must understand the flag itself, its symbols and meaning.
The American flag
The American flag consists of 13 red and white horizontal stripes to represent the 13 colonies. The red represents valor and hardiness, white purity and innocence, and blue vigilance, perseverance, and justice. Further, the blue is in the canton, the upper-left area and the position of honor on a flag. The section includes the 50 white stars representing the 50 states.
The concept of honor is extremely significant for members of the fire service. Honor represents the fire service’s many commitments, first to those we serve and second to those who have served and continue to serve with us. We honor all of them with respect and admiration by aspiring to live up to the highest levels of commitment, sacrifice and excellence. We are forever accountable to each other and to our communities with great honor. These ideals are why firefighters answer the call.
Every branch of the Armed Services folds flags at funeral services. The number of folds depends ultimately on the size of the flag. At a military burial, a ceremonial flag is 5 x 9 feet, which requires 13 folds to complete. There is no official meaning for each fold, so different organizations have equated ideals and references for each of the folds. As such, some variations may exist as well for the fire service.
Here I propose a new representation of the 13 folds, adapted from The Patriot Fund’s description of the 13 folds, for the fire service:
- The first fold of our flag represents the many lives that make up this great country and whose protection are the very purpose in which the fire service was built and exists today.
- The second fold represents the dedication of the fire service members and their calling to protect life and property, even at the risk of their own lives.
- The third fold represents honor and remembrance of the members of the fire service who have given their lives in this endeavor and paying the ultimate sacrifice.
- The fourth fold represents the families of firefighters who sacrifice each day for their loved ones to serve their communities – a sacrifice of our most precious gift: time.
- The fifth fold represents the families who have lost loved ones in service to their communities. Families who have given up their fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles, sons and daughters.
- The sixth fold represents our collective resolve and commitment of service to this country and the communities where our hearts lay. It is with our heart that we pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
- The seventh fold is a tribute to our Armed Forces, for it is they who have and continue to sacrifice for our country, against all enemies, whether within or outside the boundaries of our great republic.
- The eighth fold is a tribute to the fathers and mothers of those who enter the valleys of the shadow of death, that we might see the light of day through their skill and service. We honor all parents, for whom the flag flies on Mother’s and Father’s Day each year.
- The ninth fold is a tribute to this great calling, the fire service. We recognize the founding father of the fire service, Benjamin Franklin. The fire service has sustained through members like him who serve faithfully, lovingly, loyally and skillfully. A devotion of character by the men and women who have made this country safer and greater through this calling.
- The tenth fold is a tribute to the leaders of communities, states and our nation who commit financially to equip and staff firehouses all over this great nation and abroad.
- The eleventh fold is a tribute to the Maltese cross – the symbol of the fire service and the members of what is recognized to be the very first firefighters on the isle of Malta in ancient Rome.
- The twelfth fold is a request of the creator to watch over the fire service and the members who serve each day. Also, to watch over our selfless families who are left at home, hopeful of our return. An answer to their collective prayers and a reminder of our country’s national motto, “In God We Trust.”
- The thirteenth fold is summed up in the “Firefighter’s Prayer”:
When I am called to duty, God, wherever flames may rage,
give me the strength to save a life, whatever be its age.
Help me to embrace a little child before it’s too late,
or to save an elder person from the horror of that fate.
Enable me to be alert and to hear the weakest shout,
to quickly and efficiently put the fire out.
I want to fill my calling and to give the best in me,
to guard my neighbor with my life and protect their property.
And if in the end I have to pay the ultimate price,
Please bless with your protecting hand my loving family in their sacrifice.
Honoring our history
Once the flag is folded and tucked in, it takes on the appearance of a cocked hat, reminding us of the soldiers who served under Gen. George Washington as well as the sailors and Marines who served under Captain John Paul Jones who were followed by their brothers and shipmates in the Armed Forces, preserving for us the rights, privileges and freedoms we enjoy today.
The stars and the canton blue will be the only color showing. This is a representation of the states and ultimately the people who make up our country and republic for which it stands, one nation under God. A grateful country built and sustained by the servants of our Armed Forces, the fire service, police and other members of public safety, including all emergency medical responders, dispatchers, doctors, nurses and medical professionals.
Thank you to a grateful nation and to the members of the fire service who are dedicated to protecting our county’s people and property.
In honor of my friend and brother, Medal of Honor Recipient, CPT. Matthew King – 7.16.22.