The Maltese cross is one of the most iconic and recognizable symbols in the fire service. Adorning firefighter uniforms, helmets, patches and more, this distinctive badge serves as an emblem of honor and sacrifice for these first responders.

But where did this symbol come from and how did it become so deeply ingrained in firefighting culture? In this article, we'll explore the captivating history of the Maltese cross along with its enduring meaning and legacy for firefighters today as they proudly wear the Maltese cross firefighter emblem

Key Takeaways

  • The Maltese cross has its roots with medieval crusaders and the Knights of St. John.
  • It was adopted by early fire departments as a badge of protection and willingness to sacrifice.
  • Today the Maltese cross represents courage, honor and the core values of firefighting.
  • The cross remains an iconic part of firefighter culture displayed on apparel, vehicles, tattoos and more.

Let's dive into the origins and significance of this timeless fire service emblem - the Maltese cross.

Origins and History of the Maltese Cross

While the Maltese cross came to be known as a firefighting symbol, its origins date back centuries to the age of medieval crusaders. Over the decades, the Maltese cross became the preeminent symbol of the fire service, representing their values of honor and community protection.

Crusaders and the Knights of St. John

knights were burned alive

During the Crusades to conquer the Holy Land during the 11th and 12th centuries, European knights and crusaders encountered a terrifying weapon - fire and incendiaries.

The crusaders faced attackers throwing glass bombs containing flammable naphtha, torching their ranks. Many were burned alive or sustained disfiguring injuries. The flaming liquid brought excruciating pain and agonizing death upon the hundreds of brave crusading knights were burned alive by its fiery power.

Among these crusaders were an order known as the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem. Also called the Knights Hospitaller, they not only fought to conquer territory but also provided medical aid to the wounded and sick.

When the knights were drenched with glass bombs containing naphtha and ignited, a new weapon unknown to European circles at the time, their brother knights would rush in and risked their lives to save them, smothering the flames. These men became some of the first firefighters and their actions would become just a first of a long list of courageous acts.

To honor their bravery and sacrifice, the crusaders awarded the Knights of St. John a special symbol - a cross. And because the order established its base on Malta after leaving Jerusalem, this distinctive emblem became known as the Maltese cross.

Their heroic efforts were recognized by fellow crusaders who awarded them each a cross similar to the one that symbolizes firefighters now.  These brave fighter for the cross are remembered as others risked their lives for their fellow man and the Maltese Cross firefighters carry on that tradition today.

The Order of the Knights of St. John lived for close to four centuries on the Mediterranean island of Malta after leaving Jerusalem.

Adoption as a Fire Service Symbol

Over the following centuries, variants of the Maltese cross continued to be used by military groups and orders. Its link to service and sacrifice made the cross an apt symbol for early organized fire departments.

One of the first fire departments to officially adopt the Maltese cross was the Metropolitan Fire Department (MFD) of New York, established around 1865. The department's regulations mandated a "white metal Maltese cross" badge be worn by firefighters.

The cross shape likely drew parallels to the crusaders and conveyed courage and willingness to risk one's life to save others, like the Knights of St. John had centuries earlier.

From there, the Maltese cross was widely adopted by fire departments across America during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It remains the fire service's preeminent symbol and the same thing that firefighters wear today.

Meaning and Significance of the Maltese Cross

This iconic emblem holds great meaning and significance for firefighters across generations. The Maltese cross is a symbol and represents core values and ideals that firefighters embody.

example of maltese cross

A Badge of Honor and Protection

The Maltese cross serves as a badge of honor for firefighters. It signifies their pride and distinguishes their profession among emergency services.

The eight points of the cross have also taken on specific meanings relating to firefighter duties:

  • Gallantry and perseverance
  • Tact and dexterity
  • Explicitness and observation
  • Sympathy and resourcefulness
  • Discrimination and audacity
  • Celerity and valor
  • Constancy and loyalty
  • Humility and patience

Together, these encapsulate the virtues and professionalism of firefighting.

Eight PointsRepresent the eight beatitudes and the virtues they embody.
Equal ArmsSymbolize the equality and unity of the knights in their commitment to protect and serve.
Curved ArchAssociated with angel wings, representing the protection and guidance provided by firefighters.

The cross is also regarded as a symbol of protection. It represents the firefighter pledge to lay down their life for others if needed, just as the crusader knights did long ago. This willingness to sacrifice one's safety for the greater good lies at the very heart of firefighting. The firefighter who wears this cross is willing to lay down his life to save others, just as the crusaders did centuries ago.

Willingness to Sacrifice

Every day, firefighters knowingly face hazards that endanger their own lives to protect the public and property. Like the crusaders, they take solemn oaths to put service before self.

The Maltese cross reflects this understanding that firefighters may be called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice. Over 100 firefighters die in the line of duty each year in America, continuing that crusader legacy of courage and selflessness.

In this way, the cross stands as an enduring symbol of the firefighter's commitment to valor and community before oneself. It reminds us all of the risks they take for our collective benefit. Maltese Cross firefighters, like the Crusaders of fellow man so many years ago, risk their lives to save others.

The Enduring Legacy of the Maltese Cross

Even after 800 years, this iconic symbol remains deeply embedded within the fire service. It continues to represent the principles and sacrifices made by firefighters every day.

Universal Recognition Across Fire Departments

Today the Maltese cross can be found within the insignia of countless fire departments at the local, state, national and international levels.

It universally identifies the fire service and elevates firefighters across borders. The cross makes firefighters instantly recognizable wherever they may serve.

Representing Core Values of Courage and Service

To firefighters and the public alike, the Maltese cross stands for core values like:

  • Courage
  • Duty
  • Pride
  • Honor
  • Respect
  • Selflessness
  • Integrity

It represents virtues drawn from the crusader knights that still ring true for firefighters in the modern age. The cross connects today's firefighters to centuries of history and tradition.

As long as firefighters continue to serve with honor and dedication, the Maltese cross will remain an embodiment of that noble purpose. It stands as an enduring symbol of their mission and sacrifice.

The Maltese Cross in Firefighter Culture

Beyond just insignia, the Maltese cross also holds a prominent place in firefighter culture and tradition.

honor with firefighthers

Displayed Proudly on Uniforms and Vehicles

Walk into any fire station and you'll see Maltese crosses displayed with pride on:

  • Helmets
  • Badges
  • Patches
  • Flags
  • Clothing
  • Equipment
  • Fire trucks

The cross often denotes a firefighter's rank and years of service. Fire departments also incorporate it into their official seals and insignias.

Prevalence in Firefighter Tattoos and Memorabilia

The Maltese cross is one of the most popular tattoos among firefighters, honoring their profession. It can also be found on:

  • Collectibles
  • Fundraising merchandise
  • Charity gear
  • Gifts
  • Event goods
  • And more

It is a unifying thread woven into the very culture of the fire service.

Deep History of the Iconic Fire Service Symbol

While the Crusades represent the early origins of the Maltese cross, the symbol has a rich history closely intertwined with firefighters over the past two centuries.

firefighters with honor

Badge of the Bravest

One of the first known uses of the Maltese cross in the fire service was by the Protection Engine Co. No. 5 in New York City, nicknamed the "Honey Bee" company. Their handmade badge incorporated a Maltese cross design.

When the Metropolitan Fire Department (MFD) was established to replace volunteers in New York in 1865, its regulations mandated a "white metal Maltese cross" badge be worn by firefighters. This helped inspire widespread adoption.

Stories from Firefighting's Past

Some oral history relates the MFD cross to the Army's Fifth Corps patch used in the Civil War - a Maltese cross potentially tied to Fire Chief John Cregier's service.

Other tales link the cross to the "Honey Bee" company's badge designs. Ultimately the cross shape and name drew parallels to knights and sacrifice.

Spreading Like Wildfire

By the late 1800s, the Maltese cross was being incorporated by fire departments across the country. Variants evolved but maintained the core shape and symbolism.

Though designs changed over time, the cross remained a unifying identifier for firefighters and their pledge to service.

Enduring Meaning and Purpose

While fire service symbols evolved, the Maltese cross endured as an emblem of history, sacrifice, and protecting life and property before oneself.

Those core values engrained by the crusaders continue to be embodied by firefighters nationwide over a hundred years later.

Fire Department Pride

To this day, Maltese crosses adorn firefighter uniforms, equipment, vehicles, insignias, seals and memorabilia.

It remains an integral part of firefighter culture and history. The cross is displayed with great reverence and pride.

Legacy of Bravery and Brotherhood

From its crusader origins to modern fire stations, the Maltese cross represents courage, duty and valor.

It serves as a solemn reminder of the sacrifices made by so many and the commitment to protect others before oneself.

This legacy of bravery and brotherhood lives on through today's firefighters.

Why Firefighters Wear the Maltese Cross Badge

But why has this symbol specifically endured so strongly within the fire service? What does it represent to the men and women who wear this iconic cross?

Protection and Sacrifice

The Maltese cross signifies firefighters' sworn oath to put themselves in harm's way when duty calls.

Just as the crusader knights risked their lives to protect and serve others without hesitation, firefighters also pledge to courageously jeopardize their safety for the greater good of the community.

common maltese cross

Courage and Valor

Firefighters knowingly rush into burning buildings, dangerous rescue operations, hazardous material incidents and all manner of emergencies every day.

Like those crusaders facing walls of flame centuries ago, it takes a unique courage to overcome mortal fears and fulfill one's sworn obligations in the face of such severe peril.

The Maltese cross stands as a testament to that gallantry. It is a badge of honor for a profession rooted in valor.

Camaraderie and Calling

Another key aspect the cross embodies is the brotherhood among firefighters.

When crusaders faced the flames of battle, they depended on their fellow knights to help protect and rescue them if necessary, binding them in a common cause.

That same calling and devotion to aiding your brothers and sisters in times of grave danger strengthen the family of firefighters today.

The Maltese Cross represents the courage and valor of firefighters, who risk everything to protect and serve. It is a symbol that speaks volumes about their dedication and selflessness. As they face the flames, armed with strength and compassion, they embody the true spirit of the Maltese Cross.


The Maltese cross originated 800 years ago, but remains just as iconic and meaningful today. It represents a history of service, sacrifice and courage that lives on in the fire service.

This revered symbol honors the crusaders that came before, while inspiring today's firefighters who carry on that legacy. The Maltese cross reflects pride, duty and valor - the heart of firefighting itself.

So next time you see this distinctive emblem, remember that it symbolizes centuries of bravery and a willingness to lay down one's life for the greater good. The Maltese cross is intrinsically linked to the firefighter mission to protect and serve.

Frequently Asked Questions

What does the Maltese cross mean for firefighters?

For firefighters, the Maltese cross is an emblem of honor, sacrifice, courage and the core values of firefighting. It represents their solemn pledge to protect others before themselves.

How did the Maltese cross become associated with firefighting?

The link originated centuries ago with crusader knights who helped extinguish fires and aid those burned in battle. Their bravery was honored with a cross that later became a fire service symbol.

Is the Maltese cross only used by certain fire departments?

No, the Maltese cross is nearly universal across fire departments at all levels all over the world. It is the quintessential insignia representing firefighters.

Where else do we see the Maltese cross besides uniforms and fire trucks?

The cross also commonly appears on firefighter badges, patches, tattoos, charities, merchandise, gifts, memorabilia and more as part of firefighting culture.

What core firefighter values does the Maltese cross represent?

Values like courage, duty, honor, sacrifice, integrity and protecting life and property. It reflects virtues directly linked to firefighting.

How does the cross connect today's firefighters to historical legacy?

The Maltese cross pays tribute to crusader knight origins, establishing firefighters as part of an ancient tradion of service and sacrifice.

associated with angel wings, signifying the protection provided by firefighters and their role as saving angels.