St. Florian, the Firefighter, and The Firefighters’ Cross

fire fighter, fireman

Greater Love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.
—John 15:13

CALIFORNIA FIRES AND THE FIREFIGHTERS’ CROSS

As we near the end of the 2019 California fire season, it’s time to pause and give thanks that this year there were only three fatalities and twenty-two injuries. Compared to the 2018 season in which 102 people died, this season seems like a miracle. Three hundred and ninety-one square miles were scorched and 620 structures were damaged or destroyed this year. Last year 500 square miles were scorched and 23,995 structures damaged or destroyed.

Those of us who happen to be living in or near the wildfires saw countless fire trucks traveling up and down local highways and byways. Fire equipment and personnel from across the state and nearby states responded. As they passed us, we glimpsed numerous fire department emblems—many with insignias superimposed upon a strange looking cross easily mistaken for a four-leaf clover or flower petals.

The cross on so many fire department emblems is the St. Florian’s Cross—named after the Patron Saint of firefighters.

FIREFIGHTING IN ROMAN TIMES

The Romans are generally credited as the creators of fire departments. Marcos Licinius Crassus formed his personal 500-man brigade (circa 115 BC). There was a catch though. When a building caught fire, Crassus offered to buy the building at a discounted rate. If the owner agreed, Crassus’ men would put out the fire—if not they would let the structure burn. Crassus is also credited with defeating the slave revolt led by Spartacus and is remembered as the richest man in Rome during his lifetime.

Around the time of the birth of Christ, privately owned fire personnel were composed of slaves. An article on the history of firefighters relates that Emperor Augustus determined that these private fire departments were ineffective and instituted publicly paid firemen circa 6 AD. Called vigiles they were patterned after a fire fighting system in operation in Alexandria, Egypt. Augustus levied a 4% tax on the sale of slaves to finance the vigiles. Members of these organizations roamed the streets of Rome night and day on the lookout for fires and also performed perfunctory police duty.

The vigiles were the basis of our modern fire departments. The Roman firefighters initially had no firehouses but appropriated the use of private homes as command posts.  Later specialized barracks housed the firefighters.

In these barracks (fire houses) were horse-drawn fire wagons equipped with manual pumps, buckets, hooks, mattocks and axes. Firefighters used a catapult to knock down burning structures and to create firebreaks. Roman households were legally required to maintain preventative fire equipment—mainly a supply of water on the upper story.

ST. FLORIAN, A FIREFIGHTER AND EARLY CHRISTIAN MARTYR

St. Florian (circa 250 AD-304 AD) was a Roman soldier who rose in the ranks to become the highest official in the Roman province of Noricum located in modern day Austria and Slovenia. He organized and trained “an elite group of soldiers whose sole duty was to fight fires,” according to a pamphlet issued by the Brookline, Massachusetts Firefighters Association entitled “St. Florian History.

One of St. Florian’s duties was to persecute Christians who refused to denounce Christ. Punishments included beatings, imprisonment and/or death. He refused to persecute Christians and in 304 AD a Roman inspector was sent to find out why.

When this inspector told St. Florian to offer a sacrifice to the Roman gods, St. Florian replied “I am a Christian and will suffer the same fate as the Christians.”  After his trial, he was sentenced to be burned at the stake. Standing on his funeral pyre he challenged his executioners to go ahead and light the fire telling them “I will climb to heaven on the flames.” His willingness to die in the fire led his executioners to scourge him and then drown him by tying three rocks around his neck.

ST. FLORIAN, A PATRON SAINT OF FIREFIGHTERS, BREWERS AND CHIMNEY SWEEPS

Besides being the patron saint for firefighters, St. Florian is also the patron saint of Austria, chimney sweeps and brewers. The St. Florian Cross derives its symbolism because of his firefighting background and leadership.

St. Florian is still popular in Austria and southern Germany (Bavaria). In those areas’ firefighters use the term “Florian” as a call sign in radio communications for fire stations and firetrucks.

The St. Florian Cross is a subtle reminder that Christ is always around us.

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