Why was the US flag ordered off NY fire trucks?

Controversy ensued in an upstate New York community after the fire district's governing board ordered the local fire chief to remove newly mounted American flags from the back of the department's trucks. 

Andy Burriss/The Herald/AP/File
Capt. Kris Small of the Rock Hill, S.C. Fire Department watches as other Rock Hill firefighters put a giant American Flag on the front of Station 4 on Tuesday, Sept. 11. 2012 to commemorate Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Controversy ensued in an upstate New York community after the district's governing board ordered the local fire chief to remove newly mounted American flags from the back of their trucks.

Old Glory came off the fire trucks in an upstate New York community after a board of fire commissioners asked firefighters to remove a set of newly positioned American flags.

Controversy quickly ensued, as some suggested removing the flags was unpatriotic at a time when many feel national unity is flagging, while others worried the flag placement violated national law.

The Arlington Fire District, which serves Poughkeepsie, N.Y., posted large American flags on the back of its trucks more than a month ago at the request and funding of the firefighters' union, taking care to ensure they were both clean and stable, reported Nina Schutzman for the Poughkeepsie Journal. They were quickly removed in a public ceremony Tuesday, however, after the department's governing board objected.

"We have American flag decals that appear on a good majority of the vehicles, and I really didn’t think the actual flag would be a problem," Fire Chief Tory Gallante, who authorized the flags' placement and removal, tells The Christian Science Monitor. "The purpose of the flags, obviously, is to show support for the country, for our military, other first responders, and the citizens of the United States – that's what we're about."

Mr. Gallante unwillingly had the flags removed based on a directive from Arlington's Board of Fire Commissioners, an unpaid, elected board of five commissioners that oversees the fire department, as boards do throughout New York state. During the board's Monday meeting, two members of the board had no objection to the flag display, but three opposed it, citing a "liability during normal operations for our people and other motorists."

"This past Saturday I saw one of our pumpers on Hooker Ave. going to a call," board chairman Jim Beretta told the Poughkeepsie Journal. "It had a physical flag mounted to the back of it. None of the board was aware, or consulted that these flags were being affixed to the apparatus."

The commissioners help direct the district's actions in a variety of ways. Monday's meeting, for example, saw the commissioners discussing not only the patriotic adornment of the fire trucks, but also new uniform patches, out-of-state training for firefighters, and the purchase of two new fire engines.

The directive on truck decor was a first, Gallante says.

"We move things around on a regular basis, and I’ve never had to ask permission," he says. 

Since the removal ceremony, which was attended by 50 members of the public, the department has received a steady stream of phone calls, mostly in support of the flags, and a few coming from citizens of countries outside the United States.

Some online comments have expressed concern, however, that the flags would be too ostentatious, or even violate the Federal Flag Code. Tim Langford, a specialist in flag education for the American Legion, says questions like this come up very frequently. The flag code, he notes, is more code than law because no penalty exists for violating it. The fire department was largely in compliance but violated the code slightly by posting some flags on the left side of the truck, rather than on the right. 

"If it was flown on the back to the right side, secured to the vehicle on a pole, that would be in concert with the flag code,” Mr. Langford tells the Monitor. 

Joseph Tarquinio, the president of the firefighters union that proposed and funded the flags, said it was a move toward unity. Many other trucks have similar displays, he noted, and he hopes the board will reconsider its decision.

"I never thought in a million years that we’d be asked to take an American flag off a fire truck," he says in a phone interview.

The outcry has been swift, however, and a commissioner from the board called Gallante on Wednesday afternoon to request a meeting with him and a union representative to discuss the matter. Mr. Tarqunio hopes that any safety concerns can be discussed and resolved so the flags are returned.

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