Public Outrage as FDNY Firefighters Told to Remove American Flag 9/11 Tribute

By: Georgia | Last updated: Apr 04, 2024

The Fire Department of New York (FDNY) faced a significant controversy when a ladder company in the East Village was instructed to remove an American flag with a red line. 

This flag was meant to honor the memory of six firefighters who lost their lives during the 9/11 attacks. The instruction followed a complaint that labeled the flag as a potentially “politically charged symbol.”

A Complaint from the Community

The New York Post reports that the situation escalated when an individual, claiming to be a staffer for Democratic Manhattan Councilwoman Carlina Rivera, approached firefighters at Ladder Co. 11.

A red FDNY firetruck, number 140, is parked in front of a house engulfed in flames, with smoke billowing out

Source: New York City Fire Department (FDNY)/Facebook

Riding up on a bicycle, the individual expressed concerns over the flag, suggesting it was a “fascist symbol” and questioning its continued display outside the firehouse.

Political Symbolism Questioned

In correspondence with the FDNY, a staff member from Councilwoman Rivera’s office inquired about the flag, highlighting a constituent’s concern that it might be an unauthorized political symbol. 

Close-up portrait of a smiling woman with long dark hair and a mole above her lip. She is in front of an out-of-focus American flag to the left and a blurred seal of the City of New York to the right

Source: Councilwoman Carlina Rivera 利華娜/Facebook

This inquiry underlined the complexity of using certain symbols on public property, sparking debate about what is appropriate for display on public vehicles.

FDNY’s Internal Guidelines

The FDNY has specific rules against displaying altered versions of the American flag on their equipment, a policy established in 2020 during a period of heightened social and political tension.

FDNY firefighters in dress uniform stand at attention, saluting on a city street. They are flanked by American and FDNY flags with a crowd of onlookers behind them

Source: New York City Fire Department (FDNY)/Facebook

This rule became the focal point of the debate, as the department grappled with honoring fallen firefighters while adhering to its own regulations.

The Removal Order

Deputy Chief Joseph Schiralli, visiting the firehouse, delivered the order to remove the flag, citing a violation of department policy against altered flags.

An FDNY Deputy Chief in a white helmet stands in front of microphones from various news outlets, with a serious expression on his face. In the foreground, a reporter holds up a smartphone

Source: Henry Rosoff/Facebook

Despite agreeing with the firefighters on the importance of the flag, Schiralli emphasized the need to comply with existing guidelines, underscoring the tension between department policy and the desire to honor fallen comrades.

Public and Online Outcry

The decision to remove the flag was met with widespread outrage, especially on social media platforms.

A close-up image of the American flag, with a focus on the stars and stripes

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Influencer Rogan O’Handley highlighted the issue by posting a photo of the flag with a caption that lamented the removal of the 9/11 memorial, sparking a broader discussion about the significance of such symbols in New York City’s collective memory.


Reinstatement of the Flag

Following the backlash, high-ranking FDNY officials, including Commissioner Kavanagh and Chief of Department John Hodgens, reversed the removal order.

Three FDNY firefighters are seen from the back, dressed in full gear with reflective stripes and air tanks on their backs. One helmet reads 'RESCUE,' another 'FDNY EMS'

Source: New York City Fire Department (FDNY)/Facebook

This decision was a relief to many, but it also prompted reflections on the initial decision to remove the flag, its implications, and the processes leading to such decisions within the FDNY.


The Significance of the Flag

The red line flag was displayed alongside a memorial on the fire truck, honoring the six firefighters from Ladder Company 11 who died on 9/11.

A damaged and partially burned red fire engine, number 3, on display indoors, showing signs of heavy use and exposure to high heat and smoke

Source: Wikimedia Commons

This flag’s presence next to the memorial illustrated its significance to the firefighters and the broader community as a symbol of sacrifice and remembrance.


A Call for Understanding

Firefighters expressed a desire for a more understanding approach from those who questioned the flag’s presence.

Front view of FDNY fire engine number 54, with lights flashing, during a parade in a crowded street. Pedestrians are seen walking across the street, and an American flag flies on the left side of the fire engine

Source: New York City Fire Department (FDNY)/Facebook

They suggested that a conversation about the flag’s meaning and significance could have provided an opportunity for education and understanding, rather than immediate calls for its removal.


Councilwoman Rivera's Response

Councilwoman Rivera responded to the controversy by stating her office never directly contacted Ladder Co. 11 regarding the flag.

A woman stands speaking outdoors, gesturing with her hands, with a large, abstract, black geometric sculpture in the background. She is wearing a light blouse adorned with small flowers

Source: Councilwoman Carlina Rivera 利華娜/Facebook

She explained the outreach to the FDNY was in response to a constituent’s inquiry about the flag’s legality and emphasized her ongoing support for the fire department, citing significant funding allocated to improve the firehouse’s facilities.


Political and Community Reactions

The incident prompted reactions from various political and community leaders, reflecting broader debates about symbolism, the role of public servants, and the expression of values in public spaces. 

A group of FDNY firefighters standing in a line side by side, facing left with solemn expressions. They are in full uniform with reflective stripes, wearing badges of courage on their chests, and equipped with radios and air packs

Source: New York City Fire Department (FDNY)/Facebook

Councilwoman Joann Ariola criticized the flag’s removal as an attack on First Amendment rights, highlighting the incident’s broader political and social implications.


Ladder Co. 11 Flag Restored

The controversy over the red line flag at Ladder Co. 11 reveals deep tensions about memory, honor, and public symbolism.

Two FDNY firefighters walking away from the camera toward an active emergency scene. They are fully geared with helmets, reflective turnout coats, and SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus) tanks

Source: New York City Fire Department (FDNY)/Facebook

While the flag was eventually reinstated, the incident invites ongoing discussion about how communities and institutions honor service and sacrifice within the bounds of policy and public perception.


Directive to Remove Flags from Firetrucks in 2016

This recent uproar echoes a similar incident from 2016, where the removal of American flags from firetrucks sparked a nationwide debate.

An FDNY fire engine adorned with an American flag is pictured making its way through a busy intersection in New York City

Source: Wikimedia Commons

In Upstate New York, a fire department faced a directive from fire commissioners, instructing the removal of the U.S. flags mounted on its firetrucks. This decision was attributed to concerns over “liability” for firefighters and other motorists. 


Community's Response to Flag Removal

Following the directive, approximately 50 firefighters, veterans, and community members gathered for an impromptu ceremony to respectfully take down the flags. 

A close-up image showing the detailed texture and vibrant colors of the American flag

Source: Joshua Hoehne/Unsplash

Chief Gallante shared his disappointment stating, “Obviously, I was disappointed with their directive.” The ceremony highlighted the community’s commitment to honor, as the flags were solemnly lowered, properly folded, and then entrusted to Gallante.


Patriotic Symbols on Firetrucks

Despite the removal of the flags, it was noted that patriotic decals on the firetrucks were not subject to the same directive. 

A red Rome Fire Department engine truck, labeled "Engine No. 5," is captured in the midst of a rural road lined with trees

Source: Mack Duncan/Unsplash

Chief Gallante emphasized that the decision specifically targeted the flags, leaving other forms of patriotic display, such as decals, unaffected.


Union's Initiative for Flag Display

Months before the removal order, the Arlington Professional Firefighters Association had approached Chief Gallante with a proposal to mount U.S. flags on the firetrucks, offering to cover the cost. 

Two fire trucks are parked on a city street with their ladders extended towards each other, holding a large American flag suspended in the air between them

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Gallante approved the idea under conditions that the flags be securely attached, well-maintained, and kept clean.


Flag Specifications and Maintenance

The union took meticulous steps to ensure the flags’ durability and visibility, choosing 3-by-5-foot flags designed to withstand high winds. 

The American flag is captured in mid-wave against a clear sky

Source: Cristina Glebova/Unsplash

A mechanic from the fire station was tasked with their proper installation, indicating a thoughtful and careful approach to integrating the flags into the fire department’s daily operations, especially considering New York’s challenging winter conditions.


Reinstating a Tradition of Patriotism

The decision to remount the flags was inspired by a desire to revive a tradition and express solidarity with the nation, especially during tumultuous times. 

The front of a Dallas Fire Rescue fire truck is presented head-on, featuring the department's name prominently above the grille, where an American flag motif is central

Source: Corey Collins/Unsplash

Joseph Tarquinio, president of the Arlington Professional Firefighters Association said, “So with everything going on in the country, we thought it was time. It was our way to show support—not for one particular sect but for the nation as a whole.” 


Commissioners' Liability Concerns

The removal directive was driven by liability concerns voiced by three of the five fire commissioners. 

An FDNY fire truck, labeled with the number 44, is shown participating in a parade on a city street

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The issue of liability, deemed by Tarquinio as “a gross overstatement,” sparked a debate within the community and the fire department over the balance between displaying national pride and ensuring safety and compliance with regulations.


Community Backlash and Support

The fire department received an overwhelming response from the community, with numerous phone calls and emails from veterans and other community members expressing their opposition to the commissioners’ order. 

An Arlington Fire Rescue fire engine, marked as Engine 17, is stopped at a street intersection with traffic signals and a "One Way" sign overhead

Source: Wikimedia Commons

This outpouring of support underscored the symbolic importance of the flags to the community, revealing deep-seated values of patriotism and respect for national symbols.


The Flag Debate Intensifies

At a rally that emerged from the controversy in the Arlington Fire District, one commissioner,  Frank Basso, shared his viewpoint on the matter, emphasizing the need for clear guidelines during emergency responses. 

A close-up of the American flag's star field with a shallow depth of field, showcasing the texture of the fabric and the crisp white stars against the deep blue background

Source: Lucas Sankey/Unsplash

“In the course of responding to an emergency, I don’t believe it’s appropriate to have a flag on a fire truck,” Basso stated. He further elaborated, “It’s as simple as that. The rules are very simple. You can do this and you can’t do that. When you’re responding to an emergency, it’s an emergency vehicle.”


The Symbolic Significance of the Flags

The decision to mount the flags on the firetrucks was not merely an act of decoration but a deliberate gesture of national support and unity, according to Tarquinio. 

Two young children, dressed in patriotic attire with American flag patterns, are standing and watching a red fire truck pass by in a parade

Source: Ian MacDonald/Unsplash

Tarquinio’s remarks emphasized the inclusive nature of this initiative, aiming to represent the nation as a whole rather than any specific group or ideology, especially in a period marked by significant national discourse and division.


Public Reaction to Flag Removal

The directive to remove the flags stirred a robust debate among the Arlington Fire District and its surrounding community. 

A group of firefighters, fully equipped with helmets and protective gear, are walking away from an overgrown area

Source: Arlington Professional Firefighters IAFF Local 2393/Facebook

The subsequent support for the flags, manifesting in phone calls, emails, and the planned rally, reflected a widespread belief in the importance of national symbols in fostering unity and expressing collective values, especially among those serving in public safety roles.


Flag Removal and Response

Reflecting on these two incidents involving the removal of flags from fire trucks, it’s evident that they encapsulate a broader dialogue about patriotism, respect, and public sentiment. 

A group of five smiling firefighters and one woman, possibly a civilian, are standing in a firehouse posing for a photo

Source: gregschneider24/X

These events, spanning different contexts and communities, highlight the delicate balance between honoring national tragedies and navigating the differing interpretations of displaying flags.