If you’ve ever been at the scene of a fire, you can understand the importance of knowing rank. Fire fighting requires organization and team work, which means there needs to be a person in charge.
When it comes to finding that high ranking officer, you may be surprised to discover that they’re wearing some sort of musical instrument.
The bugle has a long history with the fire department, even though its uses now may seem a little strange.
At one point, a bugle was a necessary tool of communication. This thin brass instrument used to be so important that the bugle still holds a place of honor amongst fire departments today.
If you’re interested in becoming a firefighter, you probably want to know more about the organization, as well as its history. That means understanding the different ranks, and learning more about the significance of that unusual bugle.
This guide aims to give you a better understanding of exactly what a fire department bugle is.
The Fire Department Bugle
The bugle has a pretty long and storied history with the fire department, which is why it’s so closely associated with them. Once used as a method of communication, the bugle became an integral part of the team.
However, technological advances have rendered the bugle itself fairly obsolete. Nowadays, the fire department uses the bugle primarily as a way to denote rank. No longer a hanging brass instrument, the bugle has instead been transformed into pins or patches.
The more bugles you have, the higher up the ranks you are.
Isn’t a bugle a musical instrument?
Yes, a bugle is a musical instrument, although the fire department bugle was never actually a real bugle. The bugle as it’s most commonly known is a very simple brass instrument with no valves or means of altering pitch.
Because of this, the bugle never had a great role in music. It was often used by the military to signal when the day was beginning, and to call it to an end. Bugles were sometimes used in formal ceremonies.
These bugles tend to be elaborately decorated, and sometimes hung with sashes. Nowadays, the use of the bugle is primarily ceremonial.
You’d be forgiven for assuming that the fire department bugle was used for roughly the same thing. After all, there has been a history of crossover between the fire department and the military.
However, the fire department bugle had a completely different use, and it isn’t actually a bugle. Instead, it’s a form of speaking trumpet - a distinction that still leads to some debate today.
As bugle is quicker to say than “speaking trumpet”, and as they already had an important role in other public services, it’s no surprise that the incorrect term caught on. For the purpose of simplicity, this guide will refer to them only as “bugles”.
To put it simply: the bugle is a musical instrument, but the fire department bugle isn’t.
The history of the bugle and the fire department
Fires can be hectic things. It’s important to be able to respond to changes, adapt to the situation, and maintain organization. For this to happen, communication is vitally important.
Maintaining communication means that everyone at the scene knows what they’re doing, and knows who to turn to when something goes wrong. This requires effective two-way communication, but it also means having a clear chain of command.
A fire service works because everyone understands the role that they play within the department. When there isn’t a leader taking command, things can quickly fall apart.
Radios are the obvious solution. They allow for clear and effective communication, don’t take up much space, and can be operated instinctively in high pressure circumstances.
Many emergency departments rely on the use of radios for smooth functioning. Hand signals also have a place, as they can be used when excess noise renders the radio useless.
For us, it can be tough to imagine a time without such an easy communication system. Radios are so widely available, you forget there was ever a point when this was a new technology - or when it didn’t exist at all.
But for most of human history, there were no radios. Without technology, fire departments had to use other forms of communication.
The primary way to signal a fire was through the use of telegrams. These simple systems were set up over town, and operated 24/7. Telegrams could be used to alert stations when help was needed, and provide the basic information regarding the fire.
However, they were only useful on the way to the fire, or when communicating with other departments. When actually on the scene of an emergency, telegrams were of no use at all.
Firefighters had to find other ways to convey the situation, and respond to changing circumstances.
Which is where the bugle comes in.
The bugle was adopted quite early on, by firefighters in the 1800s. Rather than simply shouting instructions, senior officers could use the bugle to amplify their voice. It’s easy to see why this caught on.
Light and easy to carry, the bugle could effectively convey orders without wearing out the firefighter's voice. It was also easy to identify who was speaking in crowded situations. When struggling to locate the chain of command, you simply had to turn to the person with the bugle.
These bugles became integral to the department, and only given to those who had earned the right. This made them a pretty special item. (Although there are rumors of bugles being plugged up at one end and used as a drinking vessel.)
The person with a bugle was a firefighter who had earned a leadership position.
Alongside the everyday bugle, there was also the ceremonial bugle. While the everyday bugle would be plain, and expected to take some damage, the ceremonial bugle could be quite ornate.
As the bugle became a clear sign of leadership, ceremonial bugles were sometimes given as rewards of service.
In earlier history, the fire department could be quite a lawless thing. They were often private organizations, run by insurance companies, and operated like a business.
It took some time for the fire department to become the public service we know today, and much of this came after the Civil War. Firefighters became army captains, and they took their ranks back to the department with them.
It’s easy to see how the bugle became a part of this growing service, and how quickly it was integrated into the hierarchy.
The bugle and the fire department today
While they were at one point essential, with the advent of new technologies the bugle has fallen out of use. Radios are significantly clearer, and they allow for two-way communication. Even traditionalists can agree that the bugle no longer has a place at the scene of an active fire.
Over time, the bugle was phased out, and eventually replaced altogether. If you see a bugle on the wall of a fire station, it’s no longer used on duty, but instead has historical or sentimental value.
It could have been given to recognize exceptional service, or exchanged between departments.
But even though the bugle isn’t a necessary piece of equipment anymore, it’s association with the fire department hierarchy lives on.
As you can imagine, not everyone at the scene of a fire could be given a bugle. This would lead to chaos, with no voice distinguishable above the other. The purpose of the bugle was to cut through the noise, and make the person in charge heard.
Therefore, if you saw someone with a bugle around their neck, you knew they were important.
It’s pretty hard to miss a big, brass bugle as it’s being waved about. For members of the department and the general public, the bugle became a shorthand for the person in charge.
This easy to identify symbol has since been adapted into the insignia used to show hierarchy in the modern fire service.
The bugle and fire department hierarchy
A simplified picture of the bugle is used today as a pin or patch to denote the rank of a member of the fire department. The more bugles you have, the higher your rank is.
Earning a bugle is a moment of pride for a member of the fire service. It shows achievement, and signals that you can be trusted with a position of leadership.
When you first join the fire department, you’re likely to receive the role of probationary firefighter. This works like a probationary period at any type of job: it’s an opportunity to adjust, and see if the position is right for you.
Once the probationary period is up, you graduate to the role of firefighter. At this point, you may be excited to receive your first bugle. The bad news is, you aren't quite there yet. Remember, the bugle was meant to make those in charge heard - it wouldn’t work if everyone had access.
“Firefighter” does refer to everyone in the fire department, but it’s also a specific rank.
A firefighter receives their first bugle once they’ve reached the rank of lieutenant.
This is actually quite similar to the original usage of the bugle. A lieutenant would be expected to give instruction to the company when responding to a situation. Even if they don’t have an actual bugle anymore, the symbolic bugle is a nice reminder.
The role up from lieutenant is captain. To denote this promotion, a captain will receive a second bugle. These are positioned side by side, similar to military bars.
As a firefighter moves up a role, more bugles are awarded. This is a clear indication of the importance of the person within the department. Of course, this practice wouldn’t have occurred when actual bugles were being used.
It would be incredibly impractical to send out officers on duty, weighed down by multiple brass instruments.
Here is where things start to get confusing. How many bugles a Battalion Chief receives depends on the exact hierarchy of an individual fire department, and how many ranks are above Battalion Chief. A Battalion Chief can have either 2 crossed bugles, or 3 crossed bugles.
A large fire station may have a lot of personnel, so need a wide variety of ranks to function smoothly. This might mean there are several positions above Battalion Chief, such as District Chief and Deputy Chief.
In this case, the Battalion Chief will receive insignia with 2 bugles, crossed. This indicates that they’re higher ranked than the lieutenants.
A smaller fire department may not need as many roles. In that case, the Battalion Chief will receive 3 crossed bugles.
This role only exists at the larger fire departments. A District Chief will likely receive an insignia of 3 crossed bugles.
The changing usage of bugles might get a bit confusing when you see different fire departments together. However, within the ranking of each organization, the bugles will be awarded in a logical progression.
The Deputy Chief, sometimes known as the Assistant Chief, is the second-highest position in the department. A deputy chief would receive 4 bugles, to indicate their important role. These bugles may be crossed and fanned, or they might be positioned side by side.
Fire Chief is the highest rank available, and for this they receive 5 bugles. This is the most a person can receive. The bugles are generally crossed to create a star shape, but they’re sometimes laid out next to each other.
By this point, the bugles are starting to take up quite a bit of space on the uniform.
As you can see, there are a few different ways of doing things. However, across the departments one thing remains the same: the more bugles, the higher your ranking.
Variations on the bugle
Although the bugles are a popular symbol, they aren't the only ones used by the fire department. Some places chose to use stars, or even bars.
Often, stars are awarded to the highest ranking personnel. These are used similarly to bugles, with more stars indicating the higher position of the person. In this case, bugles might still be awarded to the lower ranks.
However, sometimes the higher ranks will receive a star, and the lower ranks will receive bars instead.
Occasionally, the stars will be used as an indicator of years spent in service.
The range of insignia is particularly useful for larger sized departments, and this is why there’s so much variety for the rank of Battalion Chief. While there may not be a single standard usage across the fire service as a whole, the ranking will be clear within each department. As with the original purpose of the bugle, this will allow effective communication in high pressure situations.
If you ever are on the scene of a fire, the thing to remember is the person in charge is the one with the most insignia. Also, keep an eye on the helmets. These will often have the rank of the firefighter displayed prominently.
The bugle badge is most commonly a patch sewn onto the uniform. This allows for a clear display of ranking, and it’s unlikely to get in the way, or fall off during a hectic call.
Sometimes, the bugle badges are molded pins, typically made of brass. These attractive badges are generally saved for official settings, and are often worn with the dress uniform. However, some departments prefer the pins for everyday use.
The bugle is traditionally worn vertically, pointing straight down, with the larger flared end at the bottom.
Exactly what each fire department uses depends on many factors, from tradition, to the amount of personnel, and even budget concerns.
Why is there a debate around the name?
There has been some back and forth around the term “bugle”, because what’s used as insignia isn’t actually a bugle. Technically, the fire department bugle is a speaking trumpet, because it can’t be used to play music. Bugles are also traditionally curved, where speaking trumpets are straight.
However, as this usage has been going on for so long, there doesn’t seem to be much point in changing it. After all, bugle can have more than one meaning. Even if it isn’t fully accurate, it makes the most sense to keep on calling them “bugles”.
It seems strange to imagine a time when a bugle would have been an essential piece of equipment when fighting a fire. It’s difficult to imagine making a use for one nowadays, when there are so many better options.
However, the importance of the bugle lives on, and we can still see that in the rank insignia.
The iconic bugle has an undeniable significance for the fire department. They helped to develop a communication and ranking system that still plays a role today.
If you’ve grown up admiring the bugles of high ranking offices, you probably eagerly anticipate the day when you can receive your own.