What does the thin red line flag mean?

Understanding the origin, meaning and controversy related to the thin red line flags


The thin red line flag has become a fixture in many communities, but there has been considerable discussion about their origin, whether it’s appropriate to display the flags, and what they represent.

What is a thin red line flag?

A thin red line flag is a variation of the American flag that is black and white with one red stripe. More specifically, the normally red and white stripes are alternating black and white stripes with a single red stripe in the middle. The normally white stars on blue background becomes white stars on a black background.

A variation of this flag is an all-black flag with a single red line through the center.

What does a thin red line flag mean?

The thin red line flag was developed to show support and solidarity with fire service personnel and to honor injured or fallen firefighters.

The thin blue line flag was created to show support for law enforcement.
The thin blue line flag was created to show support for law enforcement.

What is the origin of the thin red line flag?

The origin of the thin red line flag really starts with the origin of the thin blue line flag – a flag created to show support for law enforcement. (Note: The thin blue line is a term that typically refers to the concept of police as the line that keeps society from descending into violent chaos.)

Following the creation of the blue line flag, several similar flags were developed to show solidarity with other public safety agencies:

  • Red – fire service
  • White – EMS
  • Yellow – dispatcher/communication
  • Gray – corrections
Thin line flags for EMS (left), dispatch (middle) and corrections
Thin line flags for EMS (left), dispatch (middle) and corrections (right)

What is the controversy over the thin red line flag?

The thin line flags have generated debate in recent months. While some view the flags as representative of solidarity with public safety and a way to honor fallen or injured first responders, others simply do not agree with any alteration of the American flag, and some view the flags as representative of political statements.

The debate over the flags’ potential political nods is most associated with the thin blue line flag and its connection to the Blue Lives Matter movement, which was started in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. As such, some see thin blue line flags as a pushback against social injustice reform movements, like Black Lives Matter. And one step further, display of the thin red line flag has, to some, become conflated with the thin blue line flag.

Where is the thin red line flag flown or displayed?

Thin red line flags are sometimes displayed inside or outside fire stations or on fire apparatus, although there is debate about whether such displays should be permitted on town or city property.

Some fire departments have policies focused on the display of flags, decals and emblems so that it is clear what is and is not permissible at the station or on apparatus.

Can civilians/non-firefighters fly the thin red line flag to show their support for firefighters?

Yes, and many do.

Where can I buy a thin red line flag?

There are several retailers that currently sell thin red line flags, including: 

What else should I know about the thin red line flag?

FireRescue1 surveyed firefighters on the use of thin line flags in public safety. We received nearly 2,000 responses about this complex issue. Respondents were fairly evenly divided among working for career, volunteer and combination departments.

Key takeaways from the survey:

  • An overwhelming majority of respondents (88%) indicated support for the thin red line flags – and the responses were from an even mix of ranks. 
  • Similarly, 79% said they support fire departments displaying thin blue line flags in support of law enforcement.
  • Most respondents who support the thin line flags (68%) do so to honor fallen and injured firefighters.
  • For departments that have thin red line flags, flags are typically displayed inside the station or on fire apparatus, as opposed to outside the station, where visible to the public.
  • For those respondents who do not support the display of thin red flags at fire departments or on apparatus, 68% said the primary reason was because it was an alteration of the American flag. 
  • Half of respondents indicated that their department does not have a policy that relates to the display of flags, decals and emblems.

Read the full survey results here.

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