The Name Game: Does FEMS mean anything to the citizens of the Nation's Capital?

Sometime in the late 1970s Winfield Kelly decided it was an insult to refer to Prince George's County as "PG County" or just "PG." County Executive Kelly was the first of many to try and get us to stop saying "PG". To this day I can't understand why the shorthand is a slight to the people who live in the county.

Being a somewhat rebellious county employee I always made sure I used "PG Fire" and not "Prince George's" when talking on the mutual aid channel as a dispatcher.

I couldn't get away with it in my TV job starting sometime in the late 90s, almost 20 years after Winfield Kelly left office. Someone convinced management that it was politically incorrect to call it "PG". If that is so, why does the fire department to this day use the logo "PGFD"?

Is it also an affront to the residents of the District of Columbia to hear the Nation's Capital referred to by people all across the country as "DC"? 

Which is a roundabout way to bring you the story by my friend Melanie Alnwick at WTTG-TV (having watched the station since the days of Captain Tugg I can't bring myself to say or write the more recent "Fox 5").  The story is about an identity crisis for the District of Columbia Fire & EMS Department.

I think it was sometime in the late 1990s (could have been later) that those on the EMS side of the house convinced me I was not being very accurate in my reporting when I talked about the "DC Fire Department" or the "DC Fire Chief". The issue wasn't "DC". The agency's name had been changed to include "EMS" and I wasn't keeping up with the times in my reports. I tried to ignore the complaint because it was easier to say "DC Fire". I was also somewhat of a traditionalist. And I could argue "DC Fire" was the term most people, including the citizens, used and understood. But in the end, I realized they were right and I was wrong. It was the correct name and it described accurately the role of the agency.

Melanie's story is about the a more recent name change. At some point after the move to the "District of Columbia Fire & EMS Department" the bureaucrats in the District government started referring to the agency by the acronym FEMS. It made it easier for the government's internal communications and has been slowly creeping into its external communications like the city website.

I never once said "FEMS" on the air or wrote it in my copy for the Internet, even though people like City Council member Phil Mendelson use it all of the time in public hearings. The reason I never used it is because those watching the TV report would be scratching their heads asking what the hell I was talking about. I'd be willing to bet good money that if you stopped 100 people randomly on the streets of DC almost no one could tell you what FEMS is. 

That hasn't stopped the new administration in the city from starting to push the name FEMS. That's what Melanie's story is about. 

Good luck to them. I think the city will need a giant advertising budget if they want the public to understand FEMS and start identifying fire and EMS services by that name. It might be real confusing for tourists. But that is just my opinion after covering the department and the city for more than three decades. For all I know the administration of Mayor Vincent Gray has done focus groups that indicate FEMS is the answer and is a short way to communicate the mission of the agency. (After this column was posted, the unsolicited reaction I've received from those not associated with fire and EMS has been consistant. All believe it may a better name for a product associated with women than a way to identify first responders. It would be interesting to learn whether an unbiased focus group produces similar results.) 

Still, I can't imagine when we will hear the first citizen say, "Call FEMS I'm having a heart attack" or "Call FEMS the house is on fire". The public understands "fire", "ambulance", "911" and possibly "EMS". FEMS will probably take a lot of training. Just remember, 35-years later and many of us are still calling it "PG".