Thin Red Line – What Does It Mean?

What Does The Thin Red Line REALLY Mean?

Perhaps you have seen a version of the American flag with a thin red line on it and not understood what it means?

The thin red line that is sometimes shown on the flag is a tribute to the firefighters of America who help to protect the citizens from dangerous fires.

However, the phrase has also had other meanings over the years and to some people it is a controversial concept.

If you want to know more about what the thin red line really means then keep reading. We have put together all of the relevant information that you need to know.

The Origin Of ‘Thin Red Line’

The phrase ‘thin red line’ is now used in association with the fire department, but this has not always been the case.

It originated in the 19th century during the Crimean War.

During the Battle of Balaclava, a small group of British soldiers were positioned as the last defense against Russia, strung out along a considerable distance.

In their red uniforms, they formed a thin red line. Even with support from Turkish soldiers, they were massively outnumbered.

The British held their own for longer than expected, but in the end it was a Russian victory.

A war reporter described the outnumbered soldiers as ‘a thin red streak topped with steel’.

After the war, the phrase was adopted and changed into a ‘thin red line’ in a poem about the Battle of Balaclava by Rudyard Kipling.

The line of soldiers in their red uniforms was also depicted in a famous painting by Robert Gibb.

Although the phrase was becoming well known, it was associated with war and not the fire department.

The next use of the phrase was when it was adapted to the ‘thin blue line’ and used to show support and admiration for police officers.

It was the name of a 1988 documentary about the police force. A blue line was added to certain versions of the American flag to represent the blue uniforms of the police.

This phrase has also been used in British culture in reference to the police.

From here, ‘thin blue line’ reverted back into ‘thin red line’, and was used in a similar way to show respect to firefighters.

They risk their lives to protect others and they are the last defense against blazing fires.

Some versions of the American flag and the flag of the United Kingdom include a thin red line for this reason.

The American flag already has red lines featured on it, so these special flags are usually in grayscale so that the red line will stand out.

Why Is The 'Thin Red Line' Controversial?

There are several reasons why the phrase ‘thin red line’ is controversial and sometimes causes offense to certain groups of people.

Here are the main reasons that some people dislike the phrase.

The Crimean War 

As mentioned earlier, the phrase first originated during the Crimean War. The Crimean War was a conflict between Great Britain and Russia with some involvement from Turkey.

Many soldiers from both sides lost their lives. It is considered to be one of the bravest moments in British military history, as well as one of the worst military failings.

For some people, the phrase ‘thin red line’ draws too much attention to these unfortunate events and to previous conflicts between the countries involved.

This means that using it for a purpose not associated with these soldiers is disrespectful to their memory.

Alterations To The American Flag 

Some Americans believe that any alteration to the American flag is disrespectful, regardless of the reason.

Changing the design of the American flag is seen by some as a desecration of the flag that represents everything American means and stands for.

Even though the reason for the change is noble, it still shows disrespect to the United States of America.

There are, of course, many people who take issue with the American flag and what it stands for.

This is because they feel the country was built using slavery and the mistreatment of native peoples.

For these people, adjusting the flag isn’t necessarily an issue, but using a problematic flag might not be the way that they would prefer to show their admiration to the fire department.

Blue Lives Matter 

Alterations to the American flag can be politically divisive and cause more issues than they seek to solve.

In response to the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement and the death of two police officers in Brooklyn, the ‘Blue Lives Matter’ movement began. 

This movement was meant to bring attention to hate crimes against police officers.

However, it was seen by some as a way to avoid accountability for police brutality, especially against black people.

The ‘Blue Lives Matter’ movement appropriated the ‘thin blue line’ flag and used other blue variations of the American flag during their protests.

This has tainted the original intention of the ‘thin blue line’ and given it controversial and negative connotations. There are concerns that this could happen to the ‘thin red line’ flag too.

Other Alterations To The American Flag 

Other Alterations To The American Flag

Red and blue are not the only colors that have been used to alter the American flag. There are other variations of the flag with different colored lines to represent other groups.

The ‘thin yellow line’ is used to show support for security guards and tow truck drivers. Sometimes the line is gold rather than yellow.

A flag with all white stripes and one gray is used to demonstrate support for correction officers.

A flag with all gray stripes and one white is used to show support to emergency medical services.

An American flag with a thin orange line is a sign of support for the search and rescue teams, whereas a thin green line is in support of the military.

These alternative flags are not as commonly used as the 'thin blue line' or 'thin red line', but they can still be seen across the United States.

The ideas behind them are supportive and kind, but they can still be seen as problematic.

How To Use The ‘Thin Red Line’ Flag

If you want to show your support for firefighters by using their variation of the American flag, there are several ways that you can do this:

  • Display the flag on your property - a quick online search will bring up many websites where you are able to purchase the ‘thin red line’ flag. 

You can hang it on a flagpole outside your house, put it up in a window, or display it wherever you think it looks best.

This will be a clear indication to your neighbors that you respect and admire your local fire department.

  • Clothing - You can wear a pin badge on your favorite jacket or bag. 

Alternatively, you can purchase a range of clothing items which feature the ‘thin red line’ flag as part of the design.

You don’t need to work for the fire department in order to wear the flag - there are plenty of clothes designed for people who want to show their support.

  • Educate - If you are going to display the flag either at home or on your clothing, then you should be prepared for people to ask you questions about what it means. 

Explain to people the intention behind the flag so that they understand it is not meant in a negative way. Although there might still be some people who disagree with the use of the flag.

How To Show Support Without Using The ‘Thin Red Line’ Flag 

If you want to show your support for the fire department but you don’t feel comfortable using the ‘thin red line’ flag, there are plenty of things that you can do.

One of the best ways to help the fire department is through financial donations. You can donate money to them yourself.

If you don’t have a lot of money, or you want to gather together a larger amount, then you can organize a fundraiser.

Whether you decide to do a bake sale, a sponsored sporting event, an auction, or a gala, there are lots of fun events you can organize to raise money for your local fire department.

There are also other charitable organizations you can donate to which provide help for the families of fallen firefighters, medical assistance to injured firefighters, and training for search and rescue dogs that work alongside firefighters.

You can also ask your local fire department about volunteering opportunities.

If you don’t want to join the voluntary fire department, you might still be able to help out with cleaning equipment or other jobs around the station.

Sometimes, small acts of support can be just as encouraging as the big ones.

If you see your local firefighters then give them a nod, shake their hand, or even buy them a drink or a coffee. Just make sure you don’t disturb them when they are working.


The 'thin red line' first came about in the Crimean war and had no association with the fire department.

It was adapted to show support for the police before it was used in relation to firefighters.

For some, it is a sign of respect towards the firefighters who risk their lives. For others, it is a sign of disrespect towards the American flag and what it stands for.