Clean Yellow Shirt

By Madeline Scheintaub

There is a raggedy circle of people standing around a giant map. Look around. Green and JPEG image-240D8C2B7DF8-1yellow; stained green and dull yellow; green and yellow-grey; green and yellow mottled with black; and vibrant green and brilliant yellow. That last person, what are you thinking about them?

I am that last person and I often hear: You’re blinding me. Go hug a tree in the black. I also hear the subtext: You’re new. You don’t belong. You haven’t proven yourself. You’re not entirely welcome.

My brilliant yellow is an honest signal. I am proud to wear it. It says: I am newer to firefighting. It is not my full-time job. I’m new on this fire. The subtext is: There are probably some skills I’m still working on. I might not have the search images to reliably pick out the hazards. I might need or want some extra explanation. I don’t have lots of experience in fire to draw from.

In a first impression, bright yellow Nomex and unworn gear can be taken as an indicator of relative skill, experience and belonging. This is the challenge I put out there. Take that first impression and make it conscious. Now what are you going to do?

Dig a little deeper.

Is that person in the blinding yellow really new to fire, or just lucky enough to have some new gear to break in? Are they new to this fire? What is their role here? What are they bringing to the work we are doing together? Is there anything they need? How is knowing more about this person’s experience level going to make everyone safer and the work more productive?

Are you going to create distance? Are you going to push that person away as an outsider or a burden? Can you have togetherness in the fire community without making those at the edges unwelcome? If that person with bright colored gear intentionally dulls those bright colors, are you losing anything?

I am going to continue to wear my brilliant colors until they fade with time and experience. I hope you ask me about them and why I am choosing to be out here with you.

31 thoughts on “Clean Yellow Shirt

  1. I’m a FF/EMT and when I’m in the role of EMT, I’m not in the fire so my yellows don’t get black. But I still provide a needed skill and service to the fire.

    • Bright colors shouldn’t matter. Being part of fire, it’s a giant team. If bright colors mean someone new, offer them advice to survive or there. Give what you can to help them succeed.

  2. Yes, bright yellow might mean “newbie”, but could also mean “command”. Most command positions are in somewhat clean uniform. Doesn’t mean they don’t get dirty, just shows they are the ones orchestrating the operations. If they are new, i try to keep an eye out and get them the experience they need. We all wore the bright yellow at one time.

  3. There is also a safety issue related to this. Making yourself visible to sawyers, aircraft, other crews, vehicles and many other hazardous issues that could hurt you. If you prefer to camouflage yourself and hide, chances are you won’t be seen, even if you get yourself in trouble and can’t talk. FMO’s, AFMO’s, and all supervisors should ensure people involved in fire are not lax when returning from fire assignments. Safety officers on incidents should also be looking out for this. We do not live in days where there was no replacement for clothes or access to laundry no more.

  4. Cleaner is safer ….we know that the materials used for wildland fire PPE works better when clean.
    In the year, and the upcoming years of WUI fires, who knows what you and your yellow shirt will be exposed to. So I’ll take a bright clean yellow shirt any day on the job.

  5. Old prejudices die hard in this division of the fire industry. It’s so typical that new PPE automatically initiates a dread of having to deal with the FNG. I can attest that with having nearly 20 years of wildland and structure fire suppression experience, showing up to work with a new crew with a new shirt (that finally got shipped after 6 months of being on backorder) solicited stares of disgust and rolled eyes. With the emphasis on removing contact with carcinogens on fire gear, it is advisable to take any shirts and pants that have that preferred broken-in. i.e. filthy, look out of service. Most likely the fire resistance feature has been washed out of it as well. Thanks for bringing the subject up for consideration.

  6. There is more to wearing clean, serviceable nomex on an assignment. Nomes offers a much higher level of protection from burning when clean, versus soaked in saw gas and oil or dirt, grim, sweat packed fibers. The material looses its fire retarding tendencies and become prone to burning the flammable oils. Wearing clean nomex projects the non-verbal message of “I care about my personal safety” and “I will increase my survival chances if I have to deploy a shelter”. More to the story that “I’m a newbie”. Dumb the ego and practice fireline safety.

  7. Kind of the opposite thoughts! As retired fire manager it was amazing to see crews especially type 1 crews with filthy nomex. It was an ego thing to see if you can go the season or many without washing. The stench of just standing near them was not good! Especially the sawers with gas and oil soaked nomex and chaps has been well documented has a major hazard. Managers need to do part of there job and oversee the issue!!

  8. Structural firefighters already know that the black on their PPE indicates carcinogens. It’s time the wildland folks catch on.

  9. Being a professor who gets called out as a fire behavior technical expert on large wildland fires, I’ve definitely experienced this cultural phenomenon.

    One year I wore new PPE to a fire and got razzed horribly. The next year, I got called out the day after I got new PPE and actually rolled around in my driveway under the cover of darkness to sully my clean nomex and avoid more razzing; ironically, the IC told me that I needed to look more professional and told me to change into something cleaner…

    And let’s not get started on judging people by the color of their pants or engine, which I’ve likened to gang colors in some circles.

  10. I’ve given plenty of people the stinkeye for having clean/new/etc. gear – wildland and structure.

    Then I had a daughter.

    Then I went to the funeral of a friend who died of cancer.

    Then I went to another funeral, of a firefighter who taught one of my academies. He died of cancer, too.

    After that, I found out a close friend, my former chief, had cancer.

    I keep my gear clean now. And I’m also humbled by remembering how much of a rookie I was to judge my brothers’ and sisters’ abilities by how smoke it looked like they had eaten.

  11. Has anyone thought that bright coloured clothes could mean that they could be a replacement for the old stained ones for some one who has a multitude of experience?

  12. A firefighter that can keep their gear clean is a firefighter that has their act together. Anyone can flop and sleep in their gear or not take the effort to care for themselves. It takes a firefighter that can do the job and still take a shower (at least 2 times a week) and trade in their shirt once in awhile. If your really good it won’t take you long to get that new shirt dirty. Admittedly, I prefer to wash a brand new shirt to avoid chaffing.

    Now, pants are entirely different given that I have a 29″ inseam and have to hem every pair I get. I also sew a seam up through a cargo pocket to hold my cell phone. But I pack 2 pair of fire pants for a 14 day assignment.

    What do you think about someone that is hit with retardant and refuses to wash it off their hard hat.
    Same thing, What are you trying to prove or compensate for. Might as well wear a sign around that says, Hey look at me I am bad …

  13. Love the blog. It’s keeping us thinking and talking.

    There are a lot of insecure jerks and we have our share. But as long as we are talking about yellows and assumptions I wanted to add my thoughts on the problem you brought up with knowledge of skills and experience. Particularly I want to pose a question.

    Is it time for shoulder rank/experience patches or similar?

    I have been firefighting for 28 years. And to me our biggest danger remains communication. This is not about washing gear. I don’t want to smell you, wash it. This is about communication. When I am with my crew I know them. They are my players. I know their skills and depths. I know who I need to push, because I need them better on the next burn. I know who to put on their squad as back up to support them so when the jump occurs they can support each other, learn and become better. I do not have any of that when working with other crews. We all have new brothers and sisters alongside us every year. And you would not ask them to run a set of dots, 3 chains in on a flank fire to help pull it off the line. Ya they got their yellows but they have no experience. In our crews, we don’t need the extra communication of patches. We know each other. But outside of our crews? When we have to work as a bigger team? We all give each other only two ranks. Yellow or gray. Yep, we should all take the time to tell our stories so we know who’s got our backs with real skills. In my experience tea time circle talks almost never happen because the world is what it is. So in any briefing what does a leader got to go on? In that meeting they have to make gut judgment calls. What do they have to go on to keep everyone safe and get the job done? Well… Bright or gray yellows? Check. Understands the lingo and asks good questions? Check. Professional? Check. That is about it. Unless the boss knows more from outside this meeting, that is all they have to go on. This happens every single day, at every single meeting. Every single time I turn around for help or to send someone into danger I have to make a judgment call. Most the time I have just a split second to make the call on who to send where. I don’t have time for tea. And you can bet your brother’s life, I am sending in the gray shirts to pull him out every time if all the information I have to go on is bright yellows or grays.
    If the person in a bright is new, I get stoked. A new brother or sister rocks! I can get them assigned and working in a profession I hope they will come to love. Spending time with them and on them is part of my job. Helping them grow is all part of the job I love. I enjoy this as much as fighting fire. They take time but it’s worth it.
    Who is not worth that kind of time and attention? A crew member with 5 years of solid experience. (we are all learning. That is not what I am talking about.) So you got experience and you got new PPE? Rock. But now I got to have tea time with you. You know who else has to have tea time with you? Everyone who doesn’t know you and needs you to do a tough job. That sucks for you, me and all the others who have to take time out to ask. (How much time suck are brights with experience?) You got the experience and are exactly who I need but, I have no way to know that without some tea time. Let’s say I got to send an engine. I look across the lot and engine 51 is there crewed by two bright shirts. Engine 509 is there but I can’t see the crew at the moment. Well nuts. Now I got to go have tea time because I can’t send noobs into this particular fight. The crew for 509 steps into view as I am halfway across the lot and they look like they have years of experience. Can you guess why they look like they have years of experience? I send them. Who was more qualified? I have no idea but 509 is qualified enough. Again, this is not about being clean.
    If you are the right person for the job but in brights, then I am making this whole thing more dangerous by giving the assignment to the wrong person. But if time is limited, the safer bet is the gray shirts. This is not how good decisions should be made but it’s how the world works. How many different shades of…oh my god. I mean how many different shades of yellow are there? That is a whole lot of skill getting lumped.
    My question is about communication and lack of it. I know, patches can have heat transfer issues but If all I have to go on is shirt brightness (How jacked is it that this concept is part of decision making? Fail!) I will send in gray shirts every time. I am sure no shoulder/chest resume will be perfect. But it sure beats how faded is your shirt?
    Just my two cents.
    PS if we don’t do shoulder/chest resumes can I get paint swatches issued at the next burn. I could hold them up at least and….

    Love the space to ask and think.

    • Hey, Brad what if the Newbies were given had me down grey yellows? how do you tell the difference then? you just sent newbies into a fire just because of the color of their suits.


      • Yep, that has happened. Again, it is a communication problem. I was going to tell a story about both sides of that coin happening at the same time. But that was already a long post. While I like the idea of having your experience on your sleeve, I don’t want more red tape, time sinks, etc. But we are all being dishonest if we think is does not happen. What is it coasting us? Is there an easy fix?
        Cool questions.

      • 2 more cents (in 1971 dollars) If your decision is riding on the condition of the fire shirt their is no easy fix to a complex communication issue. If the situation requires a split second decision it is time to stop and regroup. Talk to the people. Not tea time but simple conversation with the supervisor about the assignment. Non-verbal comm shouts loudly in that situation but their verbal response in just 3 minutes should clue you into what their capability is or at least suggest their experience level. Not perfect but better than condition of the fire shirt, length of their hair, facial hair or steel (any color you want) eyes. Are they asking weak questions? Are they asking questions? Is their response indicative of their understanding of the potential of the situation? Can not list the clues and have learned it is a life time study. I myself may lean toward the clean shirt as indicative of personal pride, cares more, been around long enough to know what first impressions mean to management.

  14. From one who spent more than half of life in Nomex Be it in Army flight operations or wildland fire
    Try these on for size:
    1) Read the instructions
    2) Follow the instructions, if you want
    3) Us the frickin wash machine on the road, in camp or at the station
    4) Ever had a GI bath…that’ll cure ya of not washing your clothes or showering…oh wait…this is a kinder, gentler, more intelligent??? fire world…

  15. I’m an IMET. I try to get on the line as much as possible while still watching our backs. My yellow shirt glows, but I got a really good pair of pants! I also wore a green nomex bag for four years flying C-130s. Ya never know who’s the old geezer in bright nomex. The brighter the yellow, the more bees and jackets I get and you don’t. Cheers to all.

  16. How interesting it is that currently there is belittling of personnel who wear clean clothes without knowing what they do or who they are. There is plenty of time during a day shift to communicate with them, unless you are a know it all and are in such a rush to please everyone else. I would definitely not work for someone who judges people by the color of their Nomex. If you saw a male and a female in dirty Nomex then what? Day shifts offer plenty of time to communicate. 5 minutes out of a so called 16 hour shift. If someone has a red card as a division sup, then thats what they are supposed to know. Engine boss = Engine boss. Hotshot crew = Hotshot crew. EMT = EMT. Helicopter pilot = Helicopter pilot. Good days and bad days. If in doubt look at their red card and ask a simple question. Get rid of the old thinking and listen to people who know more than you know about different aspects of fire. It is often interesting. Stop the harassment that occurs in all aspects of woodland firefighting.

    • Hey everyone, I apologize for not dreaming up a better example of bias. I am not sure anyone could, but I clearly failed. The question and thought posed by this blog made me agree and wanted to ask if there was a better way. Maybe a resume on the sleeve? I agree with all the posts here, people can be biased, make judgments based on X, Y, Z, etc.
      Again, my question was not about clean cloths, it was about faded yellows (and we can add all the other nonverbal cues suggested and more) and what people think when they see them. My failed example used time or lack of it as the hook. I tired to bolster my point that patches/sleeve resume might be a solution.
      Love the blog and asking us to think.
      Best, Brad

      • There are several separate issues coming up in the comments. One is that bright vs. dull colors is not a reliable signal of experience. Another is that people make assumptions based on this visual cue – some positive, some negative. If the assumptions aren’t made conscious, Brad’s example of choosing one crew over another by shirt color is likely to happen whether there is 30 seconds or 30 minutes or 3 hours. Even if the person in bright colors is less experienced on the fire line (the assumption of inexperience is correct), what’s that next thought and how are you then going to interact with that person? Fire line experience is not the only experience and experience is not the only thing of value.

  17. Great read, thanks for sharing! As a mid-career firefighter turned fire manager aka “overhead,” I’m always amused by the conversations about people wearing new and/or clean nomex. I got a new pair of pants this season to replace some that had worn out, and I found it very interesting how much razzing I received over the “shiny new” nomex from my peers… folks who I work with every day and know my experience level and competency. Since I don’t get to go play in the woods as much as I used to, those pants are going to be new-looking for quite a while…

    While it was in good fun in my case, to me it’s still a signal of a deeper problem… one where some really goofy things have become status symbols that we use to establish our social hierarchy in the wildland fire service. I’ll let folks fill in the blanks for most of those, but think about it… why on earth should the “newness” of nomex be an indicator of competency or social standing in our business? Crusty old fire dogs get new nomex from time to time too… And has been mentioned, sometimes the new folks get issued well-worn gear from the cache.

    Again, great post, great discussion, and thanks all for sharing.


    • Absolutely agree with the statements above. As a 20+ year BLM Safety professional and Chief Investigator for serious accidents and fatalities, PPE is one of the FIRST items we make sure of is in place prior to high risk duties. After an incident occurs, it IS the first thing we check after forming our teams and responding on scene. It’s a well known fact that the integrity of the Nomex fabric can be compromised if not laundered periodically and in accordance with manufacturers requirements. The yellows and greens (as with other PPE) need to be replaced when no longer serviceable. Great discussion! Pay it forward and preach it often.

      Stay safe out there folks!

  18. Just my two cents – it is often not as easy as ‘wash it,’ I have been operating on IHCs for the past 20 years, and the amount of time we spend in camp is very low. Generally we plan to spike, at least on my crew, whenever possible. Better sleep, safer (due to driving less), more work time, less nonsense in camp.
    When we do go to camp, we do not know where we will be from one day to the next, so people are very reluctant to drop off gear at the laundry. I have seen folks in the very uncomfortable situation of trying to explain to their boss where their PPE went. In addition, trading in works at supply if they have the same brand Nomex, sizes, etc. They often don’t, or it is delayed for some amount of time.
    While IHCs are filthy, it is because of their effort – folks get made fun of that try to ‘rough up’ or dirty their gear. We come clean, get dirty fast, and stay dirty until we leave. Showers, laundry, and supply are great in theory, but the practical application of each leaves a lot to be desired. After a brutal shift, my folks don’t want anything but sleep – its tough to coax them into eating chow sometimes.
    I guess my point is this – try not to judge so quickly. in either direction, dirty or clean. That filthy IHC that you can’t stand the smell of probably doesn’t want to be that gross – they just don’t have a lot of realistic options.

    • MH is totally right. Couldn’t agree more. I could be wrong, but I suspect “MH” is my former squad boss from a crew long long ago. Willow was on that crew as well. He would use the wand to magically wash his nomex.

  19. If the color of your PPE, and what others think of you for it, is your most pressing concern on the fireline, then either you have it easy or your priorities are misaligned. The “social status” that goes with the color/stains/dirtiness or your PPE should be so far down your list of things to watch out for, that if you have time or extra mental space to worry about it, then there is probably something more important or pressing that is being missed.
    In summary, if you are 100% committed and engaged in your operation and assignment, then who cares if you have a decade old or a nice shiny yellow?
    disclaimer: the safety aspect of stained and dirty nomex is a discussion for another post.

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