Collar Brass

By Richard Davis 

Assistant Fire Engine Operator – Huron-Manistee National Forest

I have a red hardhat, the seasonal employees have yellow hardhats. Some places break it down by colors and striping, depending on your position on your module. And in some places you can even get collar brass depending on how you are “ranked.”

Different color hard hats

The question is: Do these ways of ranking people help us on the fireline?

I have heard the argument that this visual ranking helps you identify people quickly in pressing situations. I argue that using visual cues for “rank” or position cuts into the core of what we teach young firefighters.

My Example

This happened earlier in my career. I was a senior firefighter fresh on a new crew. I wore a nice new yellow hardhat with E-631 plastered on the side.

We arrive at the fire, I begin getting gear out of the truck. Some folks from another module pull up to our Engine. I walk over to point them in the right direction. “Hey” I say as I walk up. I don’t get a response. I continue to their door. I’m now literally two feet from the Superintendent’s face. “Hey, I’m Rick.” But, once again, absolutely no response. This guy looks directly past me and addresses my Engine Captain. After my Captain chats with them for a moment they drive off without even looking in my direction.

That was one of the more strange interactions I have ever NOT had. I don’t know if I can quite articulate how that made me feel in the moment. Thinking about it afterward, I certainly didn’t feel empowered by the interaction I had with that individual. Later, I explained this to some of my co-workers and chalked it up as a strange incident. Then one co-worker said, “Guess that kinda proves your hardhat theory.”

My Take

If you have known me for more than two weeks, we have probably had a conversation (no doubt instigated by me) about “hardhat colors, collar brass” and any other visual cues to your “status” on the fireline.

These things are widely used in wildfire, especially in certain areas. Turns out this Superintendent fella I had the previous “strange interaction” with was from such a place. Could this all be coincidence? I am honestly not sure. This type of moment is not uncommon for folks though, especially those in the bright yellows and yellow hardhats.

All of us in wildfire start out as the “new guy” or seasonal employee. I bet everyone has had similar incidents happen to them. Unfortunately, this rips into the core idea the U.S. Forest Service (as well as other agencies) has been preaching to its firefighters—that everyone’s voice matters, speak up, and if you see something say something.

On one hand, we tell people to be open and that their voice matters. But on the other, we say wear this hardhat that tells everyone else you are not worth talking to. Doesn’t that seem a little harsh for something as simple as wearing a yellow hardhat or wearing some brass on your collar?

My argument is that these simple things are yet another roadblock to open communication between those at the top: white hardhats, and those at the bottom: yellow hardhats. I have relayed a personal experience of mine here. But here’s a hypothetical situation that we have all seen: White hardhat, DIVS, walks up on the line looking for the Engine Captain. DIVS walks by those yellow hats and finds the red one. Not a big deal, right? Wrong. The yellow hat gets two things from this lack of interaction, neither good. First they get one less personal interaction with DIVS—creating a barrier between them. Second, they feel less useful. This, in turn, makes them less confident, therefore less likely to communicate.

You might think that people would not take a lack of interaction so adversely. But one thing we know about human nature is that most of us desire affirmation and acceptance, especially in a new setting. When you feel like you are not getting that it can trigger confidence issues, aka less communication from that person.

Are We Equal?

Are we equal? This question is obviously very vague. In what ways are we equal? Training? Experience? Age? OK, so we’re not equal in every way. But are we equal in the sense that we are all human beings? I would say certainly yes. And yet we don’t always treat subordinates in this fashion. Is there some sort of internal drive to be superior to the person next to us?

Equal sign and question mark

Right now you might be thinking: I certainly treat my subordinates as equals! But really think about it. I believe that most of this stuff is unconscious. We treat others under us as lesser (at least for work).

How Do We Prevent This From Happening?

If all this is true, how do we combat this unconscious treatment of our subordinates? My first thought is that a good first step is to recognize that this phenomenon commonly exists. Here’s something else I am certain of: We should not systematically do things that feed into this scenario, such as collar brass and colored hardhats.

It might help to spotlight another example besides hardhats. The language you use when engaging people on a daily basis is also a major component of this troublesome pattern. “Hey Rick, do you mind going to do that engine check first thing this morning?” vs. “I told you to go do that engine check!” Or, the phrase that I have learned to loathe: “Sh*t rolls downhill.” Or how about, “Go wash the buggy?” vs. “Do you mind washing that buggy?”

If we want people to speak up or contribute their opinion on things, we need to do a better job of including people and using language that is inclusive and empowering. Just saying: “Speak up if you see something” a few times a year is not enough to build that confidence in people to say what is on their mind, especially in a stressful situation.

There’s something else we can do to help empower people to do a job outside of their comfort zone. We need to give people meaningful jobs, including meaningful intel when it comes in. Such positive actions will help to create strong, confident employees while also challenging them.

21 thoughts on “Collar Brass

  1. As a young Supt, young in tenure and young in age, I enjoyed the fact that we all wore one color hard hat. You’d see individuals from various positions seek out the old salty looking guy on the crew, and ask him the big questions. He’d get a kick out of saying, sounds good to me, but you might want to ask the Supt and point my way. But Clint was a badass, and I have much respect for him regardless of his position. We all have unconscious biases to some extent, no matter how much we try not to, or say no not me. Just as you’ve lumped your opinion piece into “Fire Culture” as this is not a culture prevalent in all areas. I never have worn bugles on my collar when going to R5, and to this day I have yet to not have respectful conversations with those wearing more bugles than I am entitled to. It’s usually the bugle-less crowd that scoffs at my requests or hello’s. See there it is, a bias towards a group. Can’t get away from it fully.

    Another thing that I raise an eye on. Asking someone do you mind doing your job? What if that senior firefighter said yeah, actually I do. Then what? You’re here to fill a need, and while I respect your opinion and feelings, if it is your responsibility to wash the buggy, and I need to remind you of this, then it will probably be pretty direct. But then again I really tried to delegate a responsibility to someone, versus just delegating a task. If it’s your responsibility to ensure the buggies are washed inside out out, to maintain a professional image, to use that time to look over the vehicle to ensure no new damage has happened, to ensure that the vehicle is still serviceable, etc.. Then yeah I’d probably tell you you’re dropping the ball on your responsibility, go wash the buggy and I don’t much care to know if you mind doing it or not.

    While “meaningful jobs” sure sounds nice, if I hire you as #23 tool swinger, guess what, swinging that pulaski for 14 hrs, day after day, might not be “meaningful” but it needs to be done. So your acceptance of my job offer is acknowledgment that it doesn’t much matter if you “mind” swinging that tool today. But I will ensure you understand the intent behind why we’re here, today and now. Maybe that’s the meaning you need to feel good for the moment.

    The expectation is that our “Fire Culture” will change overnight. Remember it took 100+ years to build a culture, have patience, be a good mentor, and recognize you may not see the fruits of this change in a new “Fire Culture”. Change happens one retirement at a time.

    Just rambling

    • This is not a conversation about being curt with someone when they have not done a job that is expected of them, maybe my example of the buggy is not fitting. The conversation is about the language and tone we use with co-workers on an every day basis. I am not saying there is no place for being curt but rather we should use positive language when interacting with our co-workers especially those that are new to the game. That being said do you think that talking down to subordinates or newer folks is uncommon in the wildfire world, or not an issue when it hapens?

  2. I worked my way up the hard hat line and became qualified as a engine capt. in the west but when I returned East my state says FF2 even though I had initiated a div sup task book. They will not acknowledge my quals at all and would only red card me as the FF2. I’ve stayed I don’t want any assignments other that FF I just want to be recognized for my experience and knowledge and just in case someone says. Who the hell are you?!?

  3. Instead of worrying about “rank” and “bosses” in the Federal fire service
    Maybe we ought start back to basics for EVERYONE
    Case in point…alll the vehicle rollovers and tree cutting accidents in the last two plus years
    Apparently all the training by all those instructors and folks wearing all the “rank” aren’t making the grade in the the above respects and maybe THEY need re qualifying
    Maybe training becomes MORE important than bugles, rank ,and all those wanting to attain “Titles.”
    While we understand somebody needs to be in charge, there sure are alot of fail points in the last few years that lead right to supervision
    Supervision does not have to be a threat to any anyone.Apparently, its quite hard in some circles, to work with today’s generation. I get that. But I also know change is hard for a 100 yr old “service.”

  4. In an emergency situation, there are times when I need to talk to the person-in-charge, NOW! Yes, it is a matter of safety. Have you ever been in a loud chaotic emergency scene, with your folks, then the new crew next to you with 7 firefighters spread out getting work done? I see the 1 person with a red helmet, that’s my indicator that I need to go tie in with that person. And Yes, rookies get a special designator- everyone can spot them. And NO, it’s not to make it easier to haze them, this way everyone knows to keep an extra eye on them, and that they might need a little extra instruction. I have never had a problem with this as I respect every single person I work with, and ensure others do the same. Guess what, we are all not the same nor should we be, if you don’t like nor understand that concept you are in the wrong business. I have been in fire since 1997, I am far from knowing everything, but I know enough to lead my crew and make informed decisions. If I get a new DIVS, I want to make it easy to find me- after that they are free to chat with whomever they wish. Google Chain-of-Command. Operating outside of this is a recipe for disaster and puts others at risk. So YES I am for standardized helmet colors based on rank- 100%. Those in a lesser rank are NEVER to be treated as a lesser person, don’t confuse the 2….

    • I am not trying to say that these hardhats are in place to “haze” new folks, I never said that in my original post. I also dont think everyone is the same, as I also mentioned in the original post. This is not supposed to be some personal attack of the way business is done, I mearly have observed some less than favorable behavior related to, not directly because of, these symbols and visual rankings. I understand the argument of need to identify someone in a tight situation, but this is not standard or even close to across the nation and know one has filed a safe net for lack of hardhat coordination that I have heard of. Just my thoughts

  5. Expediency. We’re part of a system and we use identifiers to navigate. If I’m looking for a hose clamp, I’m looking for your “E-” and walking past the folks next to you with “H-” on their hard hat. Looking for a swivel? Just the opposite. If I’m trying to turn in my time at ICP, I want signs on the doors. Are those other people less valuable because I bypass them en route to my destination? The IC is the highest status person at ICP, but for me at the moment, the PTRC is the most important person for my task. This sort of discipline lets us do our jobs. Commentor Kris’s real life story of having people approach his salty, older crewmember and ask him questions that were for the supt is exactly why we use identifiers. It wasted Clint’s time and the person’s time.

    The fire service has spent a long time standardizing these things in order to allow disparate units to come together quickly and work toward a common goal. I, for one, don’t want to go back to the days when it was kind of a shitshow because we were disorganized and people begrudged standardization because it meant change.

    If your hypothetical DIVS was walking your line without any coloring nor identifiers, that would be a disservice to you and the system. You would not know their role nor how you relate to it and therefore how you relate to that person. SOFR? FOBS? DIVS? Someone off another crew? We use these identifiers to understand our situation. Sub-alpine fir burns differently than juniper. Don’t treat them the same.

    • As I have mentioned in some of my answers to others I am not trying to treat everyone like they are the exact same, just that we treat everyone with dignity and respect no matter their status on the crew. We all no that is not always true.

  6. I appreciate this topic, as I’ve come to fire service later in my career. I’ve worked and conducted research in forestry since starting college – have been familiar with and surrounded by fire culture most of that time, but didn’t attend fire school until my late 30’s. I work for a state agency that relies on a fire militia and I work out of our headquarters. We don’t seem to have any clear protocol around rank, uniforms, or hardhat colors, but two things are clear: 1) rank is definite and expressed differently depending on person and location; and 2) the field appreciates staff from HQ who engage in fire line assignments, but they doubt our qualifications. I work as a PIO, but have also engaged in line assignments – currently as a HEQB(T). I’ve also served in various support roles with our fire program at HQ during fire season. I’d like to share three relevant observations:

    1) I routinely work with and under folks far younger – and have no problem with that. I recognize their fire experience. I’ve taken engine assignments as an FFT1/2 to complete my task books. Sure, they think I’m crazy and feel awkward around me at first, but once they see I can swing a tool and am eager to learn, it evens out. The challenge, though, is that ICS and fire culture do not take into consideration the experience I have gained in my non-fire working life. Not only do I bring valuable skills to our fire program (for both line and support roles), but I’ve also gained some wisdom and judgment with age that serve me well in emergency situations. Fire culture is not well suited to exploiting these attributes. Sure, there is some purposeful rigidity to ICS, but leaders should also take advantage of their subordinates’ strengths.

    2) On a more humorous note, hard hat color plays a definite role on the fire line. My first season – not knowing better – I bought a white hat because I figured it would reflect the most heat on hot, sunny days. Little did I know folks would think I was the boss when I showed up with that white hard hat and grey hair showing in my beard. As an FFT2 on an engine crew I’ve had overhead look past the ENGB and address me because I’m the older one with the white hat. Now I wear yellow and save the clean white for PIO assignments.

    3) I often find myself on interagency fires. Even with ICS, we all do it differently. We all make assumptions based on the culture within our own organizations. Therein lies the root of most communication issues on large incidents. This is well documented and doesn’t require more explanation, though the hard hat example illustrates it well.

    What’s the lesson? Take time to meet the folks on your team. Don’t make assumptions. Introduce yourself. Learn not only the position they fill on the incident, but also the skills and experience they bring to the job. That matters more than rank.

  7. Richard,
    From your article about collar brass and helmet colors, is it possible you’re one of the parents who believe that all the kids on all the teams who compete should get a trophy whether they win or not?
    Rank identifiers are an integral part of any paramilitary/military organization for more good reasons than a need for change. Firefighters work hard for and are proud to display their rank. It doesn’t guarantee respect; but it guarantees that any leadership shortcomings will come into focus very quickly…as well it should. Expediency and standardization are a couple of previously mentioned attributes of rank identifiers that I don’t think can be overcome by a story of rebuke in you early days of wearing a yellow hat. It’s a shame the supervisors you encountered were inattentive, but wow, ‘FNG’…maybe they were thinking about putting out a fire? I will admit though people skills training is pretty far down the line for some of the leaders on the line and in IC.

  8. There are valid reasons to be able to quickly identify more experienced (more important?) fire officials. But their ego is not one of them. I had an interesting experience in CA years ago. I first did a 14 day assignment (as a PIO managing a JIC) at NorCal at Redding. I had no collar brass and had trouble getting around in the bureaucracy (and keeping peace in the JIC between CalFire and USFS!) I went home to AK swearing I would never again do an assignment in CA. Two days later I was back, this time next door on the ” Shasta-T”as a member of an Area Command Team. I was asked to put on collar brass and handed a “star.” In just 3 days I went from PFC to Brigadier General! Life was now easier!!

  9. One of the conflicts of using collar toilet plungers on incidents for rank is the assumption that lower ranked or unranked individuals lack the qualifications to be in a supervisory function.
    The USFS has started to realize that excluding militia, with their varied helmet colors, from incident management has cost them in employee fire experience and agency buy-in.
    Another downside to the visible rank is the disrespectful attitude that has developed from many of the individuals in fire. There is a reason some agencies have the reputation of being difficult to work with.

  10. Richard,

    I have experienced similar challenges with brass and hardhats as stated in your story. Mostly, in my Region 5 career while working with our mutual cooperators. I learned this lesson the hard way and had to learn it a couple of times. I would say that now my perception has changed about our symbolic attire.

    As a Helitack Superintendent, I have to own my actions. For my crew, all members have the same black colored hardhat but there are different symbols that play into our behavior. As a female, I am small in stature so most people inherently go to my big guy with the fully mature and majestic beard down to his chest. Heck, I would go to him! I laugh as people approach him and I see his head shaking no and his finger pointing in my direction. I do not take offense to this as this is how we judge each other in fire and outside of fire. Our life teaches us these biases and I am equally guilty even though I try my best to be aware. This is the key to my difference in perception.

    Not all wrong perceptions are bad, but they are all lessons. Hardhats and collars are two tools you can use, even though others may turn their backs to you. If I had a dollar for ever relationship that never started with a conversation until they needed my expertise. Some of these jerks (men and women) have become my best and most loyal friends but it didn’t start as a story book beginning. As my relationships increased, my overall reputation grew. I did not necessarily need these communication tools in fire.

    Additionally, these tools offer opportunities to build relationships they may not normally have with others. For example, my subordinates can feel pride when their Supt. asks a DIV or ICT3 to go through them (yellow hardhat) as the primary contact for our module. They are the ones who attend briefing, ask the first questions after briefing, and serve as the face of leadership for our module. In my opinion, stepping up is equally important to stepping down to empower others through your authority. This helps them build a relationship and reputation outside of my leadership.

    Brass and hardhats are symbolic of position and can grease the skids for a meaningful conversation. I essentially play nice, wear my collar as a starting point to establish a relationship. It becomes less formal after that. I have to remember that collar brass is not just a form of authority but a sign of professionalism. By rejecting their symbol of professionalism, we can create adverse relationships on the fire ground. It is no different than a wildland firefighter who doesn’t trust the direction of a structure firefighter serving as DIVS or the blue uniform serving as a SOFR. As much as we (wildland firefighters) wear collar, they (cooperators) are looking for green pants and a dirty yellow to add credibility to their purpose. Many enjoy being able to consolidate their experience into a single symbol. For example, the pride that goes with a crew belt buckle. These things have meaning because of the experiences attached to them.

    Lyndsay Alarcon

  11. When things are going to hell in a hand basket on an incident, you don’t have time for small talk. You don’t have time to data mine the rookie just to find out you wasted critical moments that should have been spent on someone in a higher rank for endless reasons. Sometimes you need to immediately identify certain players to make things happen and save lives… it matters. I didn’t believe it till I lived it.

  12. In the heat of the moment, being able to find the person in charge of a resource just by looking is very beneficial. Supervisors being easy to find makes sense.
    Having a different color for rookies doesn’t make sense to me though. Are your rookies so unreliable that they need to be easily and immediately found among your own crew? It seems like good training and attentive supervision would make that unnecessary.
    In the age of most fires being staffed by multiple agencies, cooperators or “militia”, the idea that hard hat color codes mean anything outside of your own agency or jurisdiction is foolish. There are so many different organizations fighting fire with so many different ranks and ways of showing it that it’s usually not worth trying to decipher.

  13. I am personally split on this, while I believe that hard hat colors and collar brass should be considered, I also believe that at same time should not be focused on. I grew up on hand crews where we were all one crew and wore one hard hat, then moved to an engine with the red and yellow and stripes denoting position on the truck. The hard hat color differential is good for immediate need if all is going for hell in a handbag to see that red hat and go immediately to the captain. However, there are times that the engb trainee is not an engine capt or engineer so may have a yellow hat on. I was one of these and the worst of it was in R5, when other bosses would come up to us and start talking to the red hat, he would tell them I was the trainee (as I was a yellow hat with a stripe) and to talk to me, they would ignore it and keep talking to him. It seemed that those particular overhead would talk to no one lesser than a “red hat”.

    At the same time since becoming and engine captain myself and moving to an area that we integrate more with municipal fire departments, I have found that it’s helpful to wear collar brass on my uniform shirt when interacting with the departments in meetings and that sort of situation. Both myself and my FMO wear the representative brass, more for easier recognition for the municipal departments vs position within our agency.

    So I can see and understand where hard hat colors and collar brass have their place, but when it’s out on the fire line we should not let ourselves be “color blind.”

  14. Getting treated poorly, ignored or disregarded may feel pretty crummy. Those feelings are our own. The action of ignoring or disregarding or treating someone poorly is the responsibility of the person doing that. Those things have nothing to do with position, qualification, or rank. We are all responsible for doing ‘the right thing.”

    I am firmly in the camp of needing some quick way (hardhat color) of identifying who’s in charge so I can follow chain of command when I’m asking for direction or giving direction. On the fire line, Rapid team building is critical and partly based on what color your hard hat is. I need to know who is in charge of what and where they are.

    For me the hardhat color standards fall into the same category of risk management/mitigation as ensuring that operationally significant information gets broadcast on common radio channels as opposed to “squirrel” nets or cell phones.

    ICS breaks down when chain of command is not clear. The liabilities, loss of time, etc. associated with not using our chain of command properly and ICS properly can be huge. Communicating critical information with the wrong person can be hazardous to life and property while fighting fire.

    Your hard hat color on the fire line or your collar brass at meetings and the poor behavior of those who have red or white hats toward those who have yellow hats are a small price to pay for doing things right within our established method for managing dangerous, complex and rapidly changing incidents.

    We are changing our culture slowly to be a more respectful, inclusive and educational environment. But, I would argue, that’s a more personal path. ICS is what we do to keep EVERYONE on at least one common page for the good of all.

    Doing YOUR job on the fireline is important. We delegate. The buck stops with the person in charge of the module, the task force, the division, the saw team etc. If you are the person responsible then you need to be identfiable so that you get the information you need to do your job and that you give the information out to the right people so they can do their job in a safe, effective and efficient manner.

    Being good leaders and good followers. We all do both. Hardhat colors are a quick way to get on the road to doing “our” jobs.

    Matt B.

  15. So many thoughts on this. First, I take great pride in my USFS uniform. I always have. That was instilled in me by my supervisors and leaders as a new employees, and I carry that with me still. Now, part of my uniform is my collar brass, and I wear that equally with pride. As a female in fire, especially when I used to look a lot younger than my age, the collar brass helped me establish my “place” as a Chief. A position and title I worked very, very hard to righteously earn. But I’ve never worn it on my Nomex and I don’t know of any other feds who do (but some might).

    As to the colored hard hats, as others have said better than I probably can, it’s not a judgment as to one’s experience or competence. It is critical to be able to spot the “boss” when shit is hitting the fan. Rick, you stated “But on the other, we say wear this hardhat that tells everyone else you are not worth talking to.”‘ That is YOUR judgment, those are YOUR words. That was never why hard hat color standards were developed. Even when shit isn’t hitting the fan, sometimes I don’t have time to stop and talk to everyone. I need specific information, either to relay or receive, and I needed it quickly, and I’m going straight to the person who I know should be able to do that with me. You are in charge of how you respond to how other people act. There are all kinds of people out there. Some are assholes, but I do believe most are just trying to do their best.

    I think it’s cool you submitted this essay. And you’re getting a lot of feedback. Be open to it. You don’t have to respond to each comment or argue with everyone who disagrees with you. Take the feedback. Think about it. Continue to learn and grow and look at different perspectives with an open mind. Look up “The Four Agreements.” I believe it is on the wildland fire leadership recommended reading list. One of the agreements is “Don’t take anything personally.” This is something I, myself, have struggled with. Trust me, life is so much easier if you don’t. Good Luck.
    Riva Duncan

  16. I’ve seen over and over, the statements that hard hat color is a safety issue. That it’s needed to know whom is in charge. However, it should be known that not all permanent personnel are always the most qualified individual on the module. There are situations where the seasonal is training the permanent and is the ENGB, I’ve seen it, and I’ve been there. I agree with you Rick, it is demoralizing to let the color of your hard hat be what defines you. I remember being a seasonal CRWB (t), if it weren’t for my hard hat being black, I fear I would have had no respect, and the permanent personnel on the crew would have been approached because they were perceived as the person in charge. Even if they were only FFT1, or even FFT1(t) in apprentice situations. Or better yet, a truck of all seasonal personnel show up, I’ve been there too, and this is yet another reason I disagree with it. Lastly, does it not lose it’s value to have different colored hard hats, when modules are going to only having one seasonal and four permanent personnel as in R2? Explain to me how that is not singling somebody out. Good article Rick.

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