Symbols matter: When a patch is more than a patch

Change is inevitable, but leaders should be aware of how much weight symbols hold when it comes to department identity and cohesion


In 2001, all U.S. soldiers were ordered to wear a black beret by then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki. Black berets had traditionally been reserved for soldiers assigned to the 75th Ranger Regiment, and the decision brought a massive backlash from the Ranger community, including petitions and a march in Washington, D.C.

Then in 2017, a decision to issue olive drab berets to soldiers beyond the elite Green Beret force was met with similar pushback and protest.

Some people dismiss the importance of these events. “What’s the big deal?” they ask. “It’s just a hat.”

For many years, Trenton firefighters have worn a patch on their uniforms depicting a local statue known as the Iron Fireman.
For many years, Trenton firefighters have worn a patch on their uniforms depicting a local statue known as the Iron Fireman.

But obviously, it is not just a hat.

And it’s not just a uniform patch either, as fire officials in Trenton, New Jersey, have discovered.

Trenton firefighters fight to retain patch

For many years, Trenton firefighters have worn a patch on their uniforms depicting a local statue known as the Iron Fireman. This statue, a tribute to firefighters that has stood for over 100 years, is also the site where department line-of-duty deaths are commemorated. The fire department’s new director recently announced that the patch will be changed to a different design that “will push the department forward” – and it won’t include the Iron Fireman.

The pushback was immediate and strong. Firefighters quickly accumulated over 1,000 signatures on a petition to retain the Iron Fireman patch. Individual members have publicly expressed their opposition to the change, and union leaders criticized the lack of requested input for it.

“A lot of our members are very upset,” said one member, who added that the new patch “looks like every other department.” Another firefighter commented, “It would be disheartening to see something unique and historic to the department replaced with something so generic.”

In response to the backlash, the new fire director has backpedaled somewhat, saying that existing department members may continue wearing the old patch, but all new members will wear the new uniform and patch.

Hearing this news left me with a bad feeling. It also reminded me of some work I did with a fire department years ago.

A case study in the power of symbols      

Two fire departments with different but complementary histories and core competencies decided to merge. The merger made sense in every technical and logistical way and would provide improved service to the communities involved.

Things did not go well from the start. The first big problem was coming up with a name for the new department. Leadership settled on a name that hyphenated the two names of the old departments, but no one could agree on whose name should go first. This led to an impasse in designing a new uniform and patch. Finally, department leaders decided that members could just continue to wear the uniforms from their old departments.

It was not a big surprise that this consolidation failed. This failure was not about technical problems, but largely because of a lack of attention to symbols.

Symbols go to identity

Symbols are important. In some cases, people are willing to fight and even die for them – think of flags and religious icons. Symbols go to identity, and leaders underestimate them at their own risk.

Of course, sometimes symbols need to change. They may be unprofessional, inappropriate or have simply outlived their relevance. But even in these circumstances, radically altering or eliminating a long-cherished symbol should be done with care. Leaders should engage organization members, listen actively and explain in detail why a change is needed.

In the case of Trenton, I was particularly concerned when I read that department members would be wearing different uniforms, depending on their time in service. The whole point of wearing a uniform is uniformity. Having two distinct uniforms in use divides members, just as it did with the departments whose merger failed. It also causes unnecessary confusion among the service community.

It is not my place to say whether this or any other fire department should adopt a new patch, a new uniform or any other symbol. But I do know that when people are focused on these kinds of issues, they are not attending to other important priorities. As one union official said, instead of debating the Iron Fireman, we should “be talking about repairing old firehouses, buying new gear and other issues critical to saving lives and property.”

The departments that failed to merge tried again a few years later. There were good reasons why consolidation made sense for both the departments and the communities they served. But the second time around, they learned from their mistakes. This time, the first thing they did was come to consensus on a new name for the consolidated department. Then they developed a uniform and patch that represented the new identity.

That new department is thriving today, in part because leadership recognized the importance of symbols.

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