The fire service identity crisis: What should we call ourselves?

Names can describe, categorize and serve as a symbol, but we also need to update them when appropriate


The fire service is currently having a bit of an identity crisis. Specifically, there has been debate about what we should call ourselves.

In recent years, some departments have changed their names to better reflect their available services. For some, the change has been subtle, such as going from Fire Department to Fire-Rescue Department. For others, the change has been more dramatic – and, in some cases, controversial.

One of the more high-profile name changes came in 2011 when the District of Columbia Fire Department (DCFD) officially changed its name to District of Columbia Fire and EMS (DCFEMS). Pushback against the new name was strong at the time, and to some degree continues today.

Other name changes have been accepted more readily, such as when the Mesa (Arizona) Fire Department changed its name to Mesa Fire and Medical Department. As Mesa’s chief, Harry Beck, stated at a conference in 2014: “We got so much praise for doing that, it was incredible. Eighty percent of what we do in Mesa are EMS runs.”

The District of Columbia Fire Department (DCFD) officially changed its name to District of Columbia Fire and EMS (DCFEMS) in 2011. The Mesa (Arizona) Fire Department changed its name to Mesa Fire and Medical Department.
The District of Columbia Fire Department (DCFD) officially changed its name to District of Columbia Fire and EMS (DCFEMS) in 2011. The Mesa (Arizona) Fire Department changed its name to Mesa Fire and Medical Department.

What’s in a name?

Names serve three essential functions within an organization:

  1. They are descriptive, conveying who you are and what you do, like a brand.
  2. They are functional in that they must be similar enough to other comparable agencies so you know generally from hearing the name what the organization does and how it can be categorized with like organizations.
  3. They are symbolic, providing both individual and organizational identity.

Let’s consider the practical applications of each.

The fire service brand

The big reason that some fire departments are looking at name changes is that “fire department” no longer adequately describes what the organization really does. Yes, fire departments fight fire, but they do much more than that. Most fire agencies spend most of their time responding to other types of emergencies, particularly those that involve medical response.

As Chief Gary Ludwig once wrote: “The fire service has well established itself in the EMS business. Now is the time for fire departments to embrace their EMS mission and look at rebranding themselves to adequately and correctly reflect the majority of work that they do.”

Functional descriptions

The functionality aspect of names goes to the larger brand that the fire service represents. That brand goes something like this: “We’re there to help you in an emergency. We come when you call, 24/7. We’re trustworthy community servants, either paid or volunteer.”

This is a brand that most emergency responders want to be associated with. The shorthand for this brand has historically been “fire department.” It’s been around for hundreds of years, and people – more or less – know what to expect from it.

The challenge then is balancing the need to be more accurately descriptive with the need for community members to quickly understand who you are. The best names are simple and clear – there is no way an organization could be known as the XYZ Fire, EMS, Rescue, HazMat, Public Education and Code Enforcement Department, even though this would be a more accurate (yet still not complete) descriptive title for any fire agency. This is part of the reason some fire agencies have hung onto just being called “fire departments” – it’s just easier.

But there is some danger in not publicly recognizing the essential competencies of the modern fire service, especially its EMS component. Although firefighters know that EMS is an integral part of what they do, the public may not. Every firefighter has had the experience of arriving at a medical call with the big truck and having some person at the scene react by saying, “What are you doing here?” Fire agencies that lack transparency with what they do are in danger of not being supported in those functions, from both community members and leaders. It’s hard for citizens and elected officials to want to spend money on something that they don’t even know is happening.

The underlying identity

Finally, names go to identity, and this is where the main pushback comes from members when department names change.

As one firefighter said when the DCFD name change was announced: “DCFD. What’s in a name? Exactly 100 firefighters have made the supreme sacrifice while serving under the DCFD in its proud 140-year history. To some the DCFD might be just a name, but anyone that has ever had the opportunity to serve under the DCFD knows, deep in their heart, what it means to change that acronym to anything else. It means that we are forgetting about anything that we have ever stood for and anyone that has given their life or a lifetime to the most powerful city, leading the greatest nation in the world.”

These are strong words, and such strong feelings of commitment and identity should not be ignored when organizations are thinking about changing any key symbols associated with them, especially their names. It’s always a balancing act: the need to be more accurate and inclusive in portraying who you are both internally and externally with the need to respect history and tradition within the organization.

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