Have you ever wondered why City Flags are flying at half-staff? If so, you're not alone. We often get calls and emails from the public asking why the flags are flying at half-staff. We received one such email last year that got us thinking about how we could do a better job of informing the public about flag lowering.
First, a little flag history.
The tradition of flying the flag at half-mast began in the 17th century.According to some sources, the flag is lowered to make room for an "invisible flag of death" flying above. (Wikipedia)
Now, what’s the correct term, half-mast or half-staff?
On national holidays of recognition, such as Memorial Day and Patriot Day, flags fly at half-staff between the summit (top) and bottom of a flagpole. Or do they fly at half-mast? Many people use the two terms interchangeably when they see a flag flying below the very top of a flagpole. However, there is a distinguishable difference between the two terms.
Half-mast is the term used to flying a flag midway between the summit and bottom of the flagpole on a ship, with the ‘mast’ in ‘half-mast’ being derived from the ship’s mast. Half-mast is reserved primarily for ships when flags fly halfway during times of distress or mourning.
According to the U.S. Flag Code, half-staff is largely an American English term where it distinguishes the position and manner of display on a flagpole as half-staff, or midway between the summit and bottom. Flying a flag at half-staff is largely associated with land flagpoles, leaving the term ‘half-mast’ to ships. However, half-staff is mainly a United States term – places like Canada and the United Kingdom do not have ‘half-staff’ in their vocabulary and rely solely on using the term ‘half-mast’ when ordering flags to fly lowered. (CollinsFlags.com)
When hoisting a flag that is to be displayed at half-staff it should be hoisted to the finial for an instant, and then lowered to half-staff. Likewise, when the flag is lowered at the end of the day, it is to be hoisted to the finial for an instant, and then lowered. (Wikipedia)
And so, how does the City determine when to fly the flag at half-staff?
Generally, flags get flown at half-staff by proclamation of the President of the United States, or the Governor of the State of Washington. The Mayor’s Office receives notification from both of these entities and in turn, notifies the City’s Parks Manager and the Facilities Maintenance Manager who then have their personnel lower the flags to half-staff. In conjunction with the flags being lowered, the Mayor’s Office sends an all-city email to staff informing them of the flag lowering and it is also posted on the front page of the City’s website under “What’s New…”.
One final note – there is one exception to this protocol. Sadly, the flag within the Edmonds 911 Memorial, located at Fire Station 16 in downtown Edmonds, is flown at half-staff every day in memory of the inevitable daily loss of life of our Nation’s firefighters.