D.C. fire chief aims to rebrand department

The firefighters at Engine 15, Tower 3, Ambulance 16, in downtown Washington are suffering from what Madison Avenue types refer to as “brand confusion.”

Inside the station on a recent weekday, nearly all the firefighters were sporting the letters “DCFD” on their backs, even though the department’s official name has been D.C. Fire EMS (FEMS) for at least a decade.

  • ( CAROL GUZY / THE WASHINGTON POST ) - Firefighter David Pylar, wearing a DCFD shirt, cleans one of the truck at a station in the District.
  • ( Carol Guzy / THE WASHINGTON POST ) - Captain Richard Zegowitz wears clothing with “DCFD” on it.
  • ( Carol Guzy / THE WASHINGTON POST ) - Under the previous fire chief, an eagle was added to the fire department’s logo. Now the current chief wants to get rid of it.

( CAROL GUZY / THE WASHINGTON POST ) - Firefighter David Pylar, wearing a DCFD shirt, cleans one of the truck at a station in the District.

Then there are the competing seals that appear on the front of their uniforms and on the trucks. Some bear an eagle; some don’t. Some have a District flag flanking the Capitol; some don’t.

Chief Kenneth Ellerbe wants more consistency and to make “EMS” more prominent. So he’s chosen to follow the example of other District agencies, not to mention Kentucky Fried Chicken, Blackwater Worldwide and other corporations: He’s decided to rebrand.

Ellerbe wants the department to begin using FEMS exclusively and to simplify the seal that appears on uniforms and equipment. In late March, he issued an order that would require firefighters to wear gear marked FEMS, not DCFD. A furor ensued, prompting the chief to delay implementing the order for 120 days.

Many firefighters have balked because they pay for much of their own attire, including T-shirts, jackets, boots and coats, as well as some of the seals that appear on their trucks.

Such costs add up, said Edward C. Smith, president of Local 36 of the D.C. Firefighters Association, who noted that firefighters risk their lives on the job and they haven’t received a pay raise in five years. On Friday, one D.C. firefighter suffered life-threatening burns and four others were injured — three seriously — while battling a house fire in Northeast Washington.

At Engine 16, Capt. Richard Zegowitz held up a jacket with DCFD on the back. “This is a $100 jacket that I won’t be able to wear in three months,” he said.

D.C. Fire EMS is not the first agency to make such a fuss over letters and seals.

Government agencies that deliver basic services have been borrowing private-sector strategies to polish their image for several years. Many have done so for the same reasons Toyota refers to its Sienna minivans as “swagger wagons” and Kentucky Fried Chicken switched to the less greasy-sounding KFC: to make something square seem hip, to banish the taint of scandal or to evade perceptions of ineptitude.

The city agency that set the standard for image makeovers was the D.C. Department of Transportation, whose logo, a lowercase “d” followed by a period, is a play off DDOT. The logo was the brainchild of then-director Dan Tangherlini, who took over the agency in 2002 shortly after it was carved out of the Department of Public Works. The cutesy design was easy to pick out amid the alphabet soup of agency acronyms and set it apart from a bureaucracy that was still viewed by many citizens as frustratingly unresponsive.

“The goal was to make it stand out, to signify a different level of service and a different type of employee . . . a new way of doing things,” said Brender L. Gregory, Tangherlini’s former chief of staff.

After he took office in 2007, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) engaged in a flurry of rebranding. First, the Office of Personnel renamed itself the grander-sounding Department of Human Resources. Next up, the Office of Property Management became the jazzier Department of Real Estate Services. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) recently proposed expanding the agency’s duties, requiring another rebranding, this time as the Department of General Services.

But the city’s slickest makeover belonged to the water and sewer authority, formerly D.C. WASA, now DC Water. Its slogan is “Water is life.”

The rebranding, led by the general manager, George Hawkins, was aimed at rehabilitating WASA’s image after a lead scandal and rate increases. Hawkins, like Tangherlini, went lowercase and dropped the stuffy seal for a giant water drop. DC Water also ginned up a mascot, Wendy the Water Drop, who has her own YouTube channel.

The new logo was designed in-house, sparing ratepayers the expense of fancy branding consultants. But it still entailed changing signs on buildings and logos on uniforms and vehicles at an estimated cost of $160,000. The other agencies that rebranded in recent years also used in-house or volunteer graphic designers to save taxpayer money. Employees weren’t really affected financially.

D.C. firefighters and EMS workers are being asked to shoulder part of the cost.

Last week, D.C. Council members Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) tried to ease the financial burden on firefighters with the Fire and Emergency Services Logo Clarification Act of 2011. It would let firefighters continue to wear the DCFD logo.

Beyond the expense, there is also the matter of history. The DCFD designation has been around for decades and echoes those of other big-city fire departments. including New York City’s FDNY.

Then there is the matter of the department seal. Ellerbe wants to tweak it largely for stylistic reasons and remove the eagle, which was added under the previous chief. Ellerbe thinks it will make “EMS” more prominent, spokesman Pete Piringer says.

Putting EMS on par with the fire service was one of the recommendations made by a panel formed after the 2006 death of New York Times journalist David Rosenbaum. Rosenbaum died after EMS technicians failed to notice serious head injuries that Rosenbaum had sustained during a robbery.

The public may not notice such a subtle change. They care more about service, and subsequent surveys have shown public satisfaction with FEMS has improved.

Among firefighters, however, symbols matter. The eagle has a long history as a symbol of fire departments and is a throwback, Zegowitz said, to the seal that was around when his father was a D.C. firefighter in the 1970s.

At Engine 16, Tower 3, the station bears an older iteration with an eagle and an image of the U.S. Capitol against a blue backdrop. Zegowitz wears a different version, in which the Capitol dome is flanked by a U.S. and a District flag — an important nod, some say, to the District’s lack of voting rights.

Keeping the seals straight takes some doing. While taking down a photo request, Piringer said, “Make sure you get the most recent old patch, not the old, old patch.”

Chris Laughlin, president and chief executive of LM&O Advertising, based in Arlington County, said the chief may have the right idea because the benefits of brand consistency can outweigh other considerations. Ultimately, people will be less confused, even if the new letters take getting used to.

In the end, Zegowitz said, the fuss over letters and seals that appear on a truck or a piece of clothing feels a bit frivolous.

“When someone is helping you,” he said, “you don’t notice what’s on their back.”

 
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