Almost no one has talked about it in public, including the news media and the union representing D.C. firefighters.
But in response to inquiries from the Washington Blade, D.C. Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe acknowledged that his decision to postpone an order that firefighters place the initials “FEMS” on the shirts and jackets they wear while on duty was based, in part, on that acronym’s perception as a possible derogatory reference to gay men.
FEMS stands for the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department, the name the city adopted more than a decade ago to replace the name D.C. Fire Department. Officials said the name change was aimed at better reflecting the important role members of the EMS, or Emergency Medical Services unit, play within a department better known for putting out fires.
Openly gay D.C. firefighter Tim Bennett said gay and straight firefighters know that the term “fem” has long been used as a derogatory reference to effeminate men or gays. He said he and some of his fellow firefighters expect the FEMS logo prominently displayed on the back of their jackets and shirts will subject them to ridicule.
“I was speaking to another member,” Bennett told the Blade. “I’m not sure if he knows I’m gay or not, but he was just relating a story. He didn’t mean any offense by it, but he was saying how his grandmother heard about this and her quote was, ‘FEMS? What’s that sound like, a bunch of faggots?’”
“And I think that’s the kind of terms and judgments it will elicit,” said Bennett. “In the perfect world, that wouldn’t be the case, but unfortunately we’re not in a perfect world yet.”
Although the name change has long since been in effect, department officials allowed firefighters and other department personnel to continue to use the longstanding logo “DCFD” on their shirts and jackets.
That policy changed earlier this year when Ellerbe issued an order requiring firefighters to replace all garments bearing the DCFD logo with the department’s officially designated logo or insignia “FEMS.”
Ellerbe told the Blade on Tuesday that he placed his order on hold for 120 days in response to concern over the FEMS logo. He said most of the concern was about the desire to retain the tradition-bound “DCFD” logo. The department and the firefighters’ union are in discussions over a possible compromise logo that will continue to reflect the important role that the EMS plays in the department.
“We are preparing a proposal to address the issues of sensitivity in our community,” he said, in referring to concerns similar to those expressed by Bennett.
“I’m from Washington, D.C. and I have members of my family who walk in all types of communities in this city and the metropolitan area, which heightened my awareness and my opinion and my sensitivity to how people are treated,” Ellerbe said.
“I’m proud to be a D.C. fireman,” said Bennett, who noted that he has been out as gay during most of his 18 years at the department. He said his fellow firefighters have treated him with respect and he has never encountered discriminatory treatment or negative comments, even when he brings his partner to social events among firefighters.
“But I can say the whole FEMS thing is a pretty poor choice of an acronym,” he said. “I just think it invites distasteful comments, even if unintentional.”
Bennett said that while he and many of his firefighter colleagues, both gay and straight, are troubled over the FEMS logo, they join the firefighters’ union president, Ed Smith, in citing two other reasons why the FEMS logo is a mistake.
The most frequently cited reason, Smith has points out, is that the logo DCFD has a long and esteemed tradition in the city and has become a well-known “brand” for the department. The other reason cited by Smith and others in favor of retaining the DCFD logo is that FEMS is often confused with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which coordinates the federal government’s disaster relief programs.
“The union’s concern is what’s recognized, and we believe that FEMS would lead to confusion about who we really are,” Smith said.
D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) agrees with the union’s position and introduced a bill last month called the Fire and Emergency Medical Services Logo Clarification Act of 2011.
“Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the official logo of the Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department shall remain DCFD,” the bill states.
As of this week, Evans’ bill had no co-sponsors. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At-Large), who chairs the committee with jurisdiction over the bill, has said he opposes the measure and had no plans for holding a hearing on the bill.
Smith said his union, Local 36 of the International Association of Firefighters, has been aware of the possible gay-related connotation of the FEMS logo and the concerns firefighters have about it. He said he has been reluctant to discuss that concern in public because it could be offensive to the LGBT community.
“I’ve encouraged those members with concerns about this to discuss it with representatives of their community,” Smith said.
LGBT activists had mixed views on the issue when contacted about it this week.
“FEMS has nothing to do with gay people,” said gay activist Bob Summersgill, who added that he doesn’t consider the term “fem” a negative reference to gay people “unless you consider women to be inferior. I do not.”
Gay activist Peter Rosenstein said there were “many reasons to debate the use of the acronym FEMS for the Fire Department but I don’t think anyone would see it as applicable to a member of the department,” gay or straight.
“The last thing anyone thinks of when they think of a firefighter is a person that is effeminate,” Rosenstein said.
Lesbian activist Barbara Helmick said the firefighters should be allowed to pick the acronym they like best.
“While there may be in our community some history of how the word fem is used, it’s really irrelevant,” she said. “I think this is an issue of what’s best for the firefighters and the public, and I have to side with the union on this one.”