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The "Maltese Cross" and the Fire Service

Many resources were compiled to write this essay. I have tried to list them all at the bottom.
If you notice one that I have failed to give credit to, please let me know and I will correct that mistake.


Maltese Cross
Cast Iron Wall Plaque



14K Gold Maltese Cross Charm 


















The History of the "Maltese Cross"
by Mica Calfee

One can easily find a hundred web sites that will tell you that the symbol of the fire service comes from the "Knights of Malta" and their battles with Ottoman pirates or the Saracens. The story is that these knights had a cross on their tunics and that the Saracens used fire as a weapon against them. All of this is true. There were many of these knights who risked their lives to save their comrades or structures from the fires. But there is much more to the story than that. These knights were incredibly brave and one battle has them winning against unbelievable odds.

PLEASE NOTE: This article is not meant to suggest that the current emblem of the United States fire service did not evolve from the cross of the Knights of St. John. All the contributors and sources of the article suggest, is how it may have done so and the history of those brave knights and of the emblem.

In his book "Badges of the Bravest" Gary Urbanowicz states that the first use of a Maltese cross was adopted by FDNY in 1865. In Brooklyn they apparently adopted it in 1882.

"The article appeared in the September 19, 1882 issue of the Brooklyn Eagle. It says: 'Commissioner Partridge has decided to make a change in the design of the badges of the Fire Department. The present badge is of nickel and in the form of a four-leaf clover. The new one is in the design of a Maltese cross, the old sixth army corps badge. Those of the Commissioner, deputy, chief engineer and assistants are gold-plated, and those of the privates are German silver. The present badges have been in use so long that some of them have found their way into the possession of parties who are not entitled to them, and from whom they cannot be obtained. Hence the change.'" - Gary Urbanowicz

As mentioned elsewhere on this site, the Civil War had much influence on the traditions of the fire service. We can probably all agree that the firefighters emblem is an attractive design. It is unique and does an excellent job of representing that, whatever it is attached to, is fire service related.

NEW! A website that talks more about the cross of the Knights of St. John, and its relationship to the U.S. Fire service emblem, can be found here.http://www.firerescue.navajo.org/Logo.html

These “Knights of Malta”.

There were "Knights of Malta." In fact they still exist, although, this was not their actual name. A more proper name might have been, “Order of St John of Jerusalem, Knights Hospitaller.” This was a Benedictine order of monks that was founded around 1100 AD. They maintained a hospital in Jerusalem for pilgrims after the first crusade. But soon after that, their mission became that of defense and they later became a military order under it's own charter, charged with the care of and defense of the holy land and pilgrims. After the loss of the holy land, (Jerusalem fell in 1187) this military order resided in several places. These locations include Rhodes and Malta. It is because of the many places they occupied, that to this day they are known as, “The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta” (abbreviated SMOM). A small sovereign piece of land in Rome is said to house the remaining knights of this order. These knights were a major military force for hundreds of years.

What about the fire?

The use of fire as a weapon became popular during the crusades. Skill in glass blowing and other technologies made it possible to hurl flammable liquids or, what we today might call, “Molotov Cocktails” down upon enemies attacking your battlements. The Knights of St. John were undoubtedly involved in such battles. Some of the more famous battles probably involved the Saracens. The Saracens used fire in many ways. Besides throwing fire bombs, they would sail vessels containing flammables into crusader’s ships. Many knights were reported to be courageous and heroic in their attempts to rescue their fellow knights in such battles and in the face of such a terrifying weapon.

More about Malta.

On August 15, 1309 the knights captured the island of Rhodes. A more famous order of military knights was the “Knights Templar”. This order was dissolved in 1312 and most of its property was given to the Hospitallers. Now known as “The Knights of Rhodes” they were forced to become a more militarized force, fighting especially with the Barbary pirates. They withstood two invasions in the 15th century, one by the Sultan of Egypt in 1444 and another by Mehmed II in 1480, who after the fall of Constantinople made the Knights a priority target.

In 1522 an entirely new threat arrived from turkey, when 400 ships under the command of “Suleman (Suleiman) The Magnificent” brought 200,000 men to Rhodes. To repel this force the knights had only the walls of the city and about 7000 men. The resulting siege lasted six months, at the end of which the survivors were allowed to leave Rhodes and retreated to the Kingdom of Sicily. In exchange, the knights promised to leave Suleman's minions in peace. But after a time, they were once again fighting each other.

The knights eventually moved to the island of Malta. They were allowed to relocate to the island of Malta under a 1530 order of Pope Clement VIII. But they had to pay rent to a feudal landlord, the king of Sicily. This rent consisted on one “Maltese Falcon” a year. This historic fact was the basis of the plot of Hammett’s famous book and subsequent movie, The Maltese Falcon.

They built large fortifications on malta including St. Elmo's Fort. Finally they acquired the name, “The Knights of Malta”. From Malta they launched attacks on the Barbary Pirates and became enemies of the Ottoman Empire once again. In 1564 Suleiman again set his sights on the knights. He sent his armada of over 170 ships to Malta with over 40,000 well trained troops and many thousand more slaves and mercenaries. Malta endured many sieges starting in 1565 but remained victorious. An amazing account of the siege of Malta can be found HERE.

It was only in 1798 that Malta fell at the hands of Napoleon. But it was through trickery rather than military might. Napoleon asked for safe harbor and then, once allowed inside the defenses, turned on his hosts. The order also had a rule that prohibited fighting with other Christians. They had also, previously, lost much of their property and resources because it was in France and had been confiscated.(4) Members of the order were given shelter in various countries. It has survived in several forms since then.

The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, better known as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta or SMOM, is a Catholic order which claims national sovereignty and has been granted permanent observer status at the United Nations. (It's claims of sovereignty are not without dispute.) SMOM is considered to be the most direct successor to the medieval Knights Hospitaller, also known as the Knights of Malta, and today operates as a largely charitable and ceremonial organization. There are several other organizations who attempt to capitalize on the name and call themselves "Knights of Malta".

What about the Cross?

By all accounts, the knights of Malta did wear a medieval cross. It looked something like this.

The Reverend Dr. Michael Foster in his "History of the Maltese Cross", defines a "Maltese Cross" as one, “made from four straight lined pointed arrowheads, meeting at their points, with the ends of the arms consisting of indented 'v's" (2) In some sources this is actually known as a "Cross Patee-Nowy" (Pattee-Nowee).(3) They state that this means something like a "swallow tailed cross" A student of heraldry, who has contacted me, disputes this definition because the term "nowy" refers to the bump as is found on the fire service cross. (More about that later.)

A Present Flag of The SMOM.

A Maltese coin minted in 1703.

This cross was probably adopted while the order was at Malta. The cross of Rhodes was slightly different.

One can find resources that give meaning to each of the four branches of any crusader cross. A somewhat thorough website from San Diego suggests that each point, of the Maltese Cross, was said to stand for eight aspirations or obligations. (1)
"Live in truth"
"Have faith"
"Repent of sins"
"Give proof of humility"
"Love justice"
"Be merciful"
"Be sincere and whole-hearted"
"Endure persecution"

From: http://www.publicsafety.net/maltese.htm

These aspirations or obligations are reflected in the Beatitudes and in fact many resources simply state that the points are meant to represent just that.
"Blessed are the poor in spirit."
"Blessed are those who mourn."
"Blessed are the meek."
"Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness."
"Blessed are the merciful."
"Blessed are the pure at heart."
"Blessed are the peacemakers."
"Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness."
-Matthew 5: 3-12

If we look at the emblems still in use by some of the worlds oldest fire departments we can see this cross. One of the most obvious uses of a version of the patee-nowy can be seen in Canadian fire brigades.

Also in Great Britain, Canada and other such countries, the Maltese cross has evolved into different versions of an eight-pointed star.

Courtesy RC Etheridge

This is known as the “Star of Jerusalem” design, which suggests some relationship to the knights. Commonly the eight points are assigned virtues, much the same way the knights did to the points of the cross. The British fire service's badge design is said to represent:
Tact, Gallantry, Dexterity, Observation, Perseverance, Loyalty, Explicitness, Sympathy.
These are very reminiscence of the aspirations of the knights or the chivalric virtues. (If not exactly the same.)

One does not have to look very far to find other stylized modifications of this symbol.

Below is the version found on fire stations in Maui, Hawaii.
Anyone know the history of this one?
This does not look much like any seen anywhere else.

For more information on the Hawaiian fire service, click on photo.


The Cross of St. Florian Idea

There are those people or websites who claim that the fire service cross is somehow derived from the Cross of St. Florian. This is a dubious assertion at best. The following serves to report on this claim. In no way should this be considered an endorsement of the idea.

Click here for possibly the best discussion found on the subject. This by Chaplain /Reverend, Don Engebretson of the Town of Antigo Volunteer Fire Department.

Here is a site that claims that this, is a "St Florian Cross Maltese."

Wiki - (Should be considered somewhat unreliable.) "The cross of St. Florian is widely used by fire services to form their emblem."

An online Encyclopedia showing a "typical St. Florian cross."

Here is a fire department that proclaims, unequivocally, that the fire service emblem is based upon the design of the St. Florian cross. It says:
"The badge of a fireman is the St. Florian Cross (oftentimes mistakenly called the Maltese Cross). This St. Florian Cross is a symbol of protection and a badge of honor. Its story is hundreds of years old."
It goes on to say, "The St. Florian Cross is oftentimes confused for the Maltese cross."

Note: This story told in the above website is a little confusing because they mix the story of the Knights of St. John and the St. Florian cross. No real references are given other than a link to a Wiki site about the Maltese cross, etc.


(1) http://www.publicsafety.net/maltese.htm
(2) http://www2.prestel.co.uk/church/oosj/cross.htm
(3) http://www.townofstephenvillecrossing.com/maltesecross.htm



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