Po-ta-toe, Pa-ta-toe?

07 Apr

Recently, the newly appointed fire chief to the DCFD has decided to change the department name, along with logos, decals and all other branding to FEMS (Fire and Emergency Medical Services).  Ok, who cares right?  As Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet questioned, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose. By any other name would smell as sweet.”  Perhaps it would, but if a rose was called higfrid would we be as drawn to it or if we renamed it as a Photosynthesis Agent and Bee Feeding Provider would you recognize it?  Even Romeo and Juliet tragically found out that a name does hold meaning.  And although this fire department name change is shaping up to be both quite the drama and tragedy, it has very real implications that are being overlooked.

But first, let’s address the name change itself.  Names and branding do have meaning and power – PR and marketing firms bank on it.  The new Freakonomics documentary even discusses a weird, but increasingly popular trend, of hiring a baby-naming consultant when couples’ are expecting.  Baby books have been on the market for years and people take the naming decision very seriously.  I would say some of the reasons for this are very relevant to this fire department name debate, so let’s run with this analogy.

One issue when naming is tradition.  I don’t know why people like to demonize the word tradition.  While it can have negative aspects, tradition is also a beautiful thing.  It’s a way to pass down information, feelings, stories, etc. from one generation to the next.  Some families name based on this.  My uncles are all named Peter as is my grandfather – it’s a tradition.  (Don’t worry, to avoid confusion they go by their middle names).  Fire departments have deep roots and traditions and part of this is their name.

Another aspect to consider is sentiment.  Some parents name their baby after an influential person in their lives or an important family member.  This is out of love, respect and honor. All of those who have served, and are serving presently, are attached to the name of their department, DCFD, as it represents a laundry list of past members who are deserving of love, honor and respect who also served under this banner.  Joining the DCFD is a monumental accomplishment for each member.  Many endure long waiting periods to even be selected, if they’re lucky.  And still, you aren’t part of the DCFD.  Then you go through a grueling training academy and probation period.  Once you make it through all that, you take your place in the DCFD with pride, like many before you.

Finally, parents sometimes seek meaning or symbolism in their babies names.  Maybe the name is symbolic of the parents’ culture or birthplace.  Or maybe the name’s meaning is in line with the values or ideals of the family.  DCFD is very symbolic – incredibly so.  DCFD symbolizes honor, respect, patriotism, heroism, selflessness.  The DCFD protects our nation’s capitol.  Even more so after the 9/11 attacks, firefighters are seen as our nation’s heroes; and firefighters, as everyone knows, work in fire departments not in “fire and emergency medical services”.  The name is iconic, just as FDNY is, and is known NATION wide.  Tourists take photos and visit firehouses.  Firefighters from across the US, and the world, follow DCFD calls through websites and social media and buy merchandise through online stores.  I don’t think FEMS has quite the same power or feelings that people associate with DCFD, nor does it evoke the same sense of pride that these firefighters feel for their department – the DCFD.  If you already have such a powerful name, why change it?

Finally, as any firefighter will tell you, a huge part of any department is a sense of family and camaraderie, which is usually born out of pride, a sense of belonging, and a culture that is unique to firefighters.  If you aren’t a firefighter and you don’t have a close friend or loved one who is, you probably don’t understand this.  It’s described truthfully and quite perfectly in this firefighter’s post entitled We Call It Brotherhood.  They are their own ethnographic group and they are represented by an overarching heading of firefighter, then by their department (DCFD!!!) and then their firehouses, and then in some departments the rig they ride on and the specialized role they have.  Taking away the name does damage to this important sense of belonging.  Psychological studies of emergency workers have shown that overall well being and the level of compassion that workers feel are positively correlated to a sense of community.  Chief Ellerbe take note: compassion is a key attribute in providing emergency medical services.

So what rationale could the new chief have for changing a name steeped in honor, tradition and pride?  A name so widely recognized and respected?  He wants the name of the department to reflect the integration of EMS into the department.  A better way of achieving this would probably be through policies and procedures, but sure, change the name and call it good….(please note the sarcasm here).  A name does not have to encompass all of it’s many parts – it’s a representation, not an “about me” section. 

Another worrisome aspect to this entire incident is how the name change occurred.  The firefighters themselves, or their union representatives, were not consulted at all.  They were merely informed after the fact.  To demonstrate why this is problematic, let’s go back to my baby naming analogy.  Could one parent decide on a name and give it to the nurse for the birth certificate without consulting the other?  Of course.  But, should they?  No.  If the relationship is one of mutual respect for one another and their opinions, then this would never happen.  Clearly this chief has no respect for the firefighters and no interest in their opinions.  That is not a quality that I would look for in a leader.  Those who are led often begin to reflect the attitude of their leadership.  If the chief doesn’t respect the firefighters, why should they respect him?

Okay, so aside from these ideological concerns, there are some real, practical considerations to think about as well.  First, these firefighters have numerous pieces of clothing with DCFD on it that they will no longer be able to wear.  This includes, hats, t-shirts, sweatshirts, jackets, etc. which were all purchased at the firefighters’ own expense.  So, with the name change the firefighters are forced to purchase new clothing or wear their dress uniform shirt – which is usually reserved for events and requires dry cleaning.  Why needlessly cause more hardship for our firefighters?

In addition to the firefighters’ wardrobe revamp, the trucks, firehouses, stationary, pens, business cards, decals, and anything else you can think of with a DCFD on it will have to be replaced – at the taxpayers expense.  I would personally rather have the fire budget go to new equipment to replace outdated or broken down equipment, or to keep enough personnel on the trucks to save me in a fire, or even for training.  New decals?  Not making me feel any safer or well protected.

Beyond the makeover aspects with the name change, there is also a name recognition argument that needs to be made.  Across the country, fire departments are called just that – fire departments.  This is universally recognized.  Fire and Emergency Medical Services is not easily recognizable, nor is FEMS.  Conversely, almost everyone knows what an FD stands for.  What’s the LAFD?  Maybe you don’t that the first two letters stand for Los Angeles, but you certainly recognize the FD for fire department.  It is nation wide, so much so that it is in fire safety materials…which brings up another issue.

Fire safety is about repetition and simplicity.  So what are we teaching kids and adults alike?  To contact their fire and emergency medical services?  NOT A CHANCE.  You are to contact the fire department. This link to the U.S. Fire Administration’s flyer on fire safety, tells you to “Remember to escape first, then call the fire department..”  The U.S. Fire Administration is part of Homeland Security and these materials are used and distributed across the nation. PSA’s tell you to call the fire department.

As GI Joe says, “knowing is half the battle.”  The point is, from the time you are little you know to call the fire department.  Even the decades old stereotype of what to do when your cat is stuck in a tree tells you to call the FIRE DEPARTMENT.  While branding changes for traditional businesses, celebrities and politicians might be a good idea, changing the branding on an emergency service is a stupid move.  Citizens already recognize and have been conditioned to a consistent brand – DCFD.  They know this brand, they recognize it.  In emergencies, when people may not be thinking as clearly, you want them to have to think as little as possible.  It should be second nature.  It’s why emergency information is drilled into people’s heads – we tend to lose our cool when bad things happen.  Don’t give people more things to consider or become confused about.  Stick with the brand that is known nationwide, a brand that is respected, a brand that is both honored and honorable – DCFD.

1 Comment

Posted by on April 7, 2011 in Domestic Policy


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One response to “Po-ta-toe, Pa-ta-toe?

  1. Loren

    April 8, 2011 at 4:10 pm


    You nailed it, change is good when there is new tech. or equipment but “FD” is all about honor, pride and sense of belonging to a unique group that should out last mankind.


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