For more than 43 years, Doug Alexander has been a member of the Mount Airy Volunteer Fire Company Inc.
For more than half of that time, his department Class A dress uniform has been sitting in his closet unused, he said.
“It’s been taking up 6 inches of space in my closet for about 20 years,” he said.
Now, Alexander’s uniform, along with 17 others from Mount Airy, will go to help fellow firefighters and their families.
The Mount Airy company became the first in Maryland to contribute to the Seattle, Wash.-based Lighthouse Uniform Company’s Bereavement Uniform program by donating its used dress uniforms in September.
After the uniforms are cleaned and refurbished, they will be provided to families of firefighters who want to bury their family member in uniform.
Firefighters wear their dress uniforms for special occasions, such as funerals and parades, Alexander said.
Steve Cohen, the owner of Lighthouse Uniform Company, said the program started a few years ago as an extension of the company’s Fallen Firefighter Dress Uniform program, which provides uniforms free of charge to firefighters who have died in the line of duty.
“There were families who were asking me if we provided uniforms for firefighter funerals,” he said. “There’s a lot of [older] people in the fire services who did not have dress uniforms.”
Uniforms can cost as much as $500 and many fire companies across the country could not afford them in the past, Alexander said.
“Back in the 1950s and 1960s uniforms were a luxury,” he said. “We never [really had] uniforms until the 1960s....[And] now particularly the older firefighters that are passing away don’t have them.”
Alexander said he received the uniform he donated — a blue double breasted dress uniform — in 1969. The company was provided with a new set of uniforms in the early 1990s, he said.
Cohen said he has received about 100 uniforms from companies across the country, including the Mount Airy company, which is one of 20 companies that are included in the program’s wall of fame.
“The response was so strong,” he said. “This is really something that is reverberating across the firefighter community.”
Alexander, a trustee of the Maryland State Firemen’s Association, an organization the represents the interest of volunteer firefighters and other emergency workers, said he learned about the program when he was contacted by Lighthouse a few months ago. Dress uniforms are a very important part of a firefighter’s funeral, Alexander said.
“It really strengthens and supports the family of [fire service members],” he said. “That’s why this program, I think, is very beneficial and important to the tradition of fire service.”
Alexander said he hopes to bring the program to other companies across Maryland, adding that he knows of several in the state that are interested in donating.
“It’s good to know that we can provide a uniform for a fellow firefighter to be buried in and maintain the dignity of volunteer firefighters,” Alexander said. “You’re helping a brother firefighter ... and you want people to know that he was part of a brotherhood.”
For more information about the program, go to bereavement.lighthouseuniform.com.