Firefighting and Para-Military: Polishing Your Salute

Dec. 23, 2010
Firefighters usually have a healthy stock of personal and company pride. Many of us are happy to get the crew together for the traditional work detail of washing, waxing and polishing the rig before that next parade or inspection. Another tradition of the fire service you can take great pride in, when polished, is your salute.

Firefighters usually have a healthy stock of personal and company pride. Many of us are happy to get the crew together for the traditional work detail of washing, waxing and polishing the rig before that next parade or inspection. Another tradition of the fire service you can take great pride in, when polished, is your salute.

While there are many types, including rifle salutes, fired-gun salutes and salutes with all manner of other weapons, let’s focus on the one you are going to most often be called upon to execute in our paramilitary structure: the military salute.


The military salute (or hand salute) has origins in history and legend that may date as far back as the Romans. Assassinations were common enough in those times that during a meeting, one would greet a high-ranking public official with a raised and empty right hand. Showing that your weapon hand was dagger-free was apparently in those days, common courtesy.

Another theory suggests the salute was born in the time of knights at the height of chivalry. When approaching one another on horseback a warrior would raise the visor of his helmet for recognition and in a gesture of peace.

Perhaps the closest ancestor of our modern-day salute comes from the British Royal Navy. As early as the 1700s, the British military clapped their right hand to the brim of their caps as a salute. But the palms of white gloves tended to get a bit dirty on ships back then, so the palm-down salute was conceived.

In the American fire service, we don’t salute as often as our brothers and sisters in the armed services. As is the case with all of our training, if we do not properly learn and practice our salute, the result is likely to be a poorly executed salute by a firefighter who lacks confidence in the skill. This leads us to sometimes see salutes that are delivered incorrectly or without confidence. Considering the most common times we’re saluting is to honor the Colors or a fallen comrade, we owe it to ourselves to do it right.

How To Salute

A salute is given to show respect for our National Colors and to fellow firefighters. It is an expression of courtesy between fire service professionals. (An example of this would be a firefighter receiving a commendation: In this case, the junior member initiates the salute, while the senior member returns it.) When you give (or return) a salute your head and eyes should turn toward the Colors or person saluted. If you are in ranks or a formation, the position of attention is maintained unless directed to salute. If directed to do so, all members should remain at attention with their head and eyes facing forward.

By yourself

A salute is performed in one fluid motion. When you salute, bring your right hand quickly from your side until the tip of your index finger touches the lower-right part of the brim of your cap (Figure 1). This should be slightly to the right and above your right eye. If you are not wearing a cap, the tip of your index finger will touch your eyebrow slightly to the right and above your right eye.

Keep the fingers joined with your thumb along your index finger and all fingers extended straight. You will be able to see your entire palm when looking straight ahead (Figure 2). Your upper arm should be parallel with the ground. Your elbow is in line with the body and your forearm is at a 45-degree angle. The hand and wrist should be straight, creating a line from a fingertip to forearm. If you are not in a formation or in ranks, turn your head and eyes toward the Colors or person you are saluting.

If saluting a senior member, hold your salute in place until the member returns the salute. When the senior member begins to bring their hand back down, bring yours down as well.

To finish your salute, reverse the movement and crisply return your hand to your side.

Now we’ve covered the basics, let’s polish it:

  • Your hand should move directly from a natural position at the side of your thigh to the brim of your cap by traveling in front of your body. Do not swing your hand out to the right; we’re not swatting flies here.
  •  Remember, the salute is performed in one fluid motion. It should take about one second to accomplish, which is plenty of time. There is no need to rush, jerk or bounce your hand to give an outstanding salute.
  • Practice, practice, practice! Practice in front of a mirror with your uniform cap on, start off slowly and adjust your technique. As your salute becomes correct, gradually speed up.

As a Company

When saluting as a company, the basics remain the same. The two major differences are that you do not turn your head or eyes from the front and all members await the command to begin and end their salute.

The commands for the company to give the salute are “Hand, SALUTE” or “Present, ARMS.” At the last sound of the word SALUTE or ARMS, all members salute in unison.

To end the salute, the commands are “Ready, TWO” or “Order, ARMS.” At the last sound of the word TWO or ARMS, all members complete the salute by lowering their hands in unison.

Now we’ve covered the basics, let’s polish it:

  • If you are giving the commands to the company, you must project your voice to ensure you are heard. If the members can’t hear you, the company can’t salute in unison.
  • If you are a member in the formation, you have to pay attention and be ready. Be listening for the commands. Remember, sometimes it’s hard to hear the person in charge.
  • Practice, practice, practice! Just like deploying a hose line, the unit has to practice this one together.
  • To make practice more effective, have the members in the same positions and formation they will be in later. This gets everyone on the same page and used to listening up for commands from their positions.

To Salute Or Not To Salute…That Is The Question

Title 4, Chapter 1 Section 9 of the U.S Codes states that:

During the ceremony of hoisting or lowering the flag or when the flag is passing in a parade or in review, all persons present in uniform should render the military salute.

Title 4 also mandates we salute during the Pledge of Allegiance and the National Anthem when in our uniforms outdoors.

For other occasions, there’s often confusion over when it is appropriate to salute and when not to. The following guidelines are compiled from law, military custom and tradition and accepted best practices.

Do salute when:

  • Our National Anthem, "To the Colors," or "Hail to the Chief" is played. Begin the salute either when ordered or at the first note of the music. End the salute when ordered or on the last note.
  • You pass uncased National Colors outdoors, or the Colors pass your position. Begin the salute at a distance of 6 paces (Figure 3) and end the salute after the Colors are passed.
  • During the Pledge of Allegiance outdoors.
  • On appropriate ceremonial occasions (e.g. an incoming Captain assuming command from a retiring Captain).
  • During the raising or lowering of the flag (also known as the reveille and retreat ceremonies). • When turning over control of formations.
  • When conducting a ‘Pass and Review’ of a fallen firefighter’s casket or
  • When you are stationary and a firefighter’s funeral caisson passes you.
  • When you have been saluted by someone. Not returning a salute is as rude as refusing a handshake.

Do not salute when:

  • You are not in uniform. (If a junior member salutes you, merely say “thank you.”)
  •  A salute is obviously inappropriate.
  • The other member is not in uniform (It’s not inappropriate, but it’s also is not required).
  • Members of equal rank pass each other (It’s not inappropriate, but it’s also is not required).
  •  Indoors*

*An exception to render honors to a fallen firefighter is entirely appropriate. In this case, remain covered (keep your uniform cap on) and salute at the appropriate time designated by your department’s procedures.

For other occasions not covered, use your best judgment. If you’re in uniform, you may always salute someone as a gesture of respect and admiration. It’s a high honor to do so.

A Final Note

A crisp salute says a lot about you, like your handshake. It can also be part of a lasting impression you give others that represents your department, the fire service and most importantly, you!

JASON FERRIS is a 15-year veteran of the fire service and currently volunteers in  New York. He is an instructor in the incident command system and weapons of mass destruction and also teaches classes in drill, ceremonies and leadership. He supports his volunteerism by serving as a Marine Sergeant. He can be  reached at [email protected].

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