A 20-year tradition: Why DeFuniak Springs firefighters wear stickers on their helmets
Every fire department has its own customs and traditions that have been carried on through the years.
Some have different colored badges to distinguish officers or different colored turnout gear, but DeFuniak Springs firefighters wear theirs on their helmets. Stickers in the shape of an extrication tool known as the “jaws of life” can be spotted plastered around the black, empty spaces of their helmets.
Fire Chief Ross Sheffield said the stickers are awarded to firefighters who have worked hard to safely remove a vehicle from around a person who has been in a collision. The tradition began almost 20 years ago, long before Sheffield took over as chief in 2020, but continues to be a symbol of “honor” at the department.
“All fire departments have their little traditions, and for this tradition to be carried on as long as it has — the patches that I saw when I came here and how they talked about it — it was a badge of honor,” Sheffield said. “They were so proud of it I was committed to saying ‘Let’s continue this process.' ”
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Sheffield said it is unclear where the idea came from exactly, but it was likely meant to be similar to reward decals and pride stickers used in football to denote players' accomplishments.
“They have a whole bunch of patches on their football helmets for when they have a good play,” Sheffield said. “It’s something similar to that.”
In motor vehicle accidents in which a person is badly injured, every second is vital. The jaws of life tool requires a lot of skill and training to use, and Sheffield said firefighters train every day to be prepared for those types of situations.
“We train more than we actually do emergency operations,” Sheffield said. “Our firefighters have to be dedicated to remain skilled and able to do the job. It takes a lot, and they should be appreciated for it. They do a lot of things that a lot of citizens don’t see.”
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When they need to perform an extrication, it is almost always in a bad situation, he said. So when firefighters can safely get a patient out of a car without causing more injuries, it is a big accomplishment.
“With these new cars, there’s airbags all over these cars and one wrong task like putting that spreader in the wrong place or putting that cutter in the wrong place could kill somebody,” Sheffield said. “When they go off it’s like a boxer hitting you in the face. It causes a lot of damage.”
Unfortunately, Sheffield said those kinds of wrecks are all too common in the area. On Saturday, the department responded to an accident in which a car had flipped upside down after hydroplaning on a nearby highway.
Not all wrecks have good outcomes, but Sheffield said the stickers are a reminder of when firefighters are able to change that. Firefighter/EMT Colby Cook, who joined the DeFuniak Springs Fire Department in April, earned his first helmet sticker after saving a woman trapped in her vehicle earlier this month.
The Aug. 12 call came from just outside of the DeFuniak Springs city limits in the Argyle Volunteer Fire Department’s district. Cook said the department was requesting additional assistance on a motor vehicle accident in which the door on a vehicle was jammed and couldn’t be opened because of the damage.
When Cook arrived, he helped pry open the door using the jaws of life and helped remove the woman. Her condition required additional treatment at an area hospital, but Lt. Jerry Hall, who was also at the scene, said she was alert and talking during the ride to the hospital.
“It’s pretty meaningful to help out and do the job you’re tasked to do,” said Cook, who added that it was made easier by a set of battery-powered tools the department acquired in June.
The electric tools are a vast improvement to the gas powered extrication equipment used previously. Sheffield said the department still has the first piece of extrication equipment used by the county, which was so heavy it was nearly a two-man job to use.
The tools were scaled down in size and weight over the years, but the recent shift to electric tools has saved vital seconds and manpower.
“These tools helped out a lot. It’s way quicker than hooking up our old system and having to worry about pumping hydraulic fluid,” Cook said. “You just press a button and get the job done.”
Cook came to the department with five years of experience as a firefighter and EMT with Walton County Fire Rescue. He said he was drawn to the DeFuniak Springs department because of the atmosphere.
“I really like the guys over here and I liked what the chief was doing, so I wanted to come over and be part of that,” Cook said.
Although it wasn’t his first time responding to a wreck, Cook said it felt nice to earn his first sticker and become a part of the department’s 20-year tradition.
“Colby did a great job,” Sheffield said. “He’s great. He understands the job and he’s a value to this department.”
Although just a sticker, Sheffield said it symbolizes more. For some it’s “like a feather in the hat,” he said. “It shows dedication. It shows commitment. It’s a morale booster and it’s just me telling them ‘I appreciate your service.’ ”