Order to Remove Helmet Decals Angers Firefighters in Teaneck, New Jersey

Updated: 08-25-2005 01:10:29 PM

Reprinted with Permission from The Herald News

Wednesday, August 24, 2005 -- Firefighters have traditionally adorned their helmets with stickers honoring fallen brothers and expressing everything from their ethnicity to their favorite sports teams.

Many of the decals seen on fire headgear these days pay tribute to the 343 firefighters who lost their lives on Sept. 11. You're likely to find the decals on helmets in firehouses across North Jersey.

But not in Teaneck.

The township recently ordered its firefighters to remove any unauthorized stickers from their helmets. That meant anything save for a township-issued American flag.

Many firefighters were angered by the move. Though they concede that some stickers might be considered inappropriate, they say most, such as an Irish shamrock or an Italian flag, are harmless.

"I think it's ridiculous," said Lt. Mike Hunter, president of the Teaneck fire officers union. "It's tradition. Everywhere you go you see it."

Being told to remove Sept. 11-related emblems was especially insulting, firefighters said. Many of Teaneck's 68 firefighters helped search through debris at Ground Zero in the days following the terrorist attacks. One Teaneck firefighter lost a cousin in the New York Fire Department on Sept. 11.

Some firefighters also wore stickers in memory of Thomas Kilmurray Jr., a 36-year-old Teaneck firefighter who died of a heart attack while off-duty two years ago.

"We understand there's things that could be offensive," one firefighter said. "But they made us take everything off.

"We have a lot of members that had friends [in the FDNY]," said the firefighter, who asked that his name not be used. "It's a slap in the face. It's rude and it's disrespectful to the memory of those guys."

Four other firefighters interviewed expressed similar opinions.

Township Manager Helene Fall defended the action. Town policy, she said, does not allow personal adornments on township-issued uniforms and equipment. In a May memo, Fall asked Fire Chief John Bauer to enforce the policy after observing a number of stickers on helmets at a fire scene.

"This is the same policy which exists in our Police Department and in our DPW department, for all uniformed personnel," Fall said.

She said the policy prevents employees from wearing items that may be considered rude or insulting.

"What is not offensive to one person may be to another," Fall said, "and it is not up to the individual uniformed person to make that decision."

Mayor Jacqueline Kates said she was unaware of the problem and that policy matters do not normally come before the mayor and council.

"If there's some problem being raised the manager may discuss it with the council, but generally it's handled administratively," Kates said.

Teaneck's is one of four paid fire departments in Bergen County. The three others - Englewood, Hackensack and Ridgewood - allow stickers and decals as long as they are not offensive and do not block safety reflectors, the department's respective chiefs said.

"It's something that reflects pride in their profession," said Hackensack acting Fire Chief Joe Thornton.

"As long as it's not offensive I don't find the need to regulate it," said Ridgewood Fire Chief James Bombace. "It's like they say about pornography: I don't know how to describe what would be a violation, but I'll know it if I see it."

Fall said firefighters who would like to wear stickers on their helmets are welcome to present them for review.

"If the union wishes to submit a request for approval of an adornment to the chief for his review with me, it will certainly be considered," Fall said. She cited the American flag decal for helmets and uniforms that the union requested a few years ago.

"They were both approved and the township even purchased them," Fall said.

Bauer, the Teaneck chief, said he has no problem with stickers provided they are not offensive and worn uniformly. He also said there's a limit to how many stickers should adorn a helmet.

"We can't have everyone running around with all these stickers on looking like billboards," Bauer said. "We've got to have some kind of uniform policy. I told [the union], 'Let's settle on one and we'll get them.'