FDNY, Group Respond Following Trademark Flap

Late last month, a social media firestorm was created after the country's largest fire department attempted to distance itself from a group that owns two fire apparatus used to respond to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The FDNY made posts to its Twitter and Facebook accounts stating that the department does not support or endorse the Remembrance Rescue Project.

Shortly after that message made it on the web, Loveland-Symmes, Ohio Deputy Fire Chief Billy Goldfeder, who is also a contributor to Firehouse Magazine, posted the information to his website FireFighterCloseCalls.com and sent it to his "The Secret List" email group.

Read: Commentary from Goldfeder

The Facebook page for Firefighter Close Calls has over 160,000 likes.

That email and post read: "The FDNY does not support/endorse the Remembrance Rescue Project. Below is their website but it sounds like it would be best to avoid them and KEEP BACK 200 FEET...and are urged to not host them, not buy their shirts etc as their marketed intent does not appear to be genuine."

Remembrance Project Leader Chris Gantz, a Skokie, Ill. firefighter, said that the last part about the group's intent not only left them feeling betrayed, but also led to a lot of the negative reaction they've received.

"Thousands of people received the email with blatantly false information. He still hasn't posted a retraction," Gantz said, noting that his group respects everything Goldfeder has done to promote the fire service.

The FDNY has since clarified that the messages weren't intended to question the group's motivations for collecting donations, but to instead draw intention to the fact that the group continued to use the department's name and logo on restored Rescue 4 and Rescue 5 rigs after being told stop doing so.

"We're not questioning whether they are legitimate or not," FDNY spokesman Jim Long told Firehouse.com last week. "At least twice -- once when they purchased the rigs, and again in June -- they were told not to use the FDNY name or logo. We've received calls and correspondence -- mainly from members of the fire service -- asking if they are part of the FDNY and 'Do you guys support them?' No we do not and no they are not."

Gantz said the first request his group received for the logo change was on June 27 when a cease-and-desist letter was sent by a city lawyer.

After the letter was received, Gantz said they immediately began working with the lawyer to address the issues, including the use of FDNY logos on its website and the addition of a disclaimer stating that the group is not affiliated with the department.

As for the rescue trucks, Gantz said that his group wasn't dragging its feet, but was instead trying to figure out the best course of action.

"Right away, we started to make the arrangements for what we're going to do with the logos," he said." We just wanted to be able to do it respectfully in regards to the firefighters and their families."

He noted that the group's in-house design team has been working on the new logos since the letter was sent and just recently finished them.

Rescue 5 had the new logos applied last week, but since Rescue 4 was in Denver for Fire-Rescue International, the group didn't have the chance to place them on the vehicle and the FDNY logos were covered with signs that contained information about the group.

Long said that while it's good that the group has changed the logos, the FDNY's position is that they should have done so in June when they received the cease-and-desist letter or should have stopped all operations until the trademark issues were addressed.

He added that the matter is now in the hands of the city's law office.

"Not until the legal department is satisfied that they have met the requirements they have set forth will the slate be wiped clean."

Gantz said the group was under the assumption that since they were working with the lawyer and there was no deadline tied to the changes, they would have time to affix the new logos on the trucks.

In hindsight, he said he wishes they moved quicker to do so.

"We've tried to do everything we can to do things by the book," he said. "We've been an open book since the beginning."

While Rescue 4 was at FRI, Gantz said that the group planned not to accept any donations or distribute T-shirts or hats bearing the group's name to show those in attendance that their mission is genuine.

"It's going to be all about the truck," he said prior to the conference.

He said that all along, that's what it's been all about.

"We are a historical group, an educational group. The goal was always to restore these trucks to what they looked like on 9/11," he said. "If we didn't step in, these pieces of history would have been headed to the scrap yard."

After FDNY posted the initial statements online, Gantz said the group began receiving "threats and reckless comments."

There were numerous questions about the group's status as a non-profit charity and where the money collected from donations actually goes.

Gantz said that the Rescue Remembrance Project is recognized as a non-profit corporation in Illinois, where the group is based, and is a registered charity with the state's attorney general.

The group is also awaiting approval of 501(c)(3) tax exemption with the IRS and was previously notified that there is a nine-month backlog that may draw out the process, according to Gantz.

As for where the donations go, he said that most of the money goes toward the maintenance of the rigs and gas as they've racked up more than 12,000 miles while traveling to different states for events.

The group has also made monetary contributions to the children of fallen Cottonwood, Calif. Fire Capt. Mark Ratledge and fallen Colby, Wis. Firefighter Jamison Kampmeyer.

There have also been questions about the lack of involvement by active or retired FDNY members with the project. Gantz says the group tried to obtain their help.

"We have made request after request just for help getting information to the family members, historical information and for a letter of acknowledgement from the FDNY. It's all been very one-sided," he said

Despite there were the negative messages, Gantz said that a bright spot was the more than a hundred likes to the group's recently created Facebook page, that now has just over 650 likes.

While emotions will run high any time the FDNY and 9/11 are involved, fire service law expert and Firehouse Magazine contributor Curt Varone said all fire departments, as well as groups using a department's name with permission, can learn a lesson from cases such as this.

He said that there are a lot of factors that come into play when a fire department tries to protect its name and that defending a trademark can be more difficult than it sounds.

"There're a lot of legal issues. In general, there is the question of whether or not a fire department can own a trademark and what they can trademark," he said. "There are a bunch of issues with that and the question of 'How do you go about enforcing it?'"

According to Varone, fire departments focused on protecting their names, must make sure they make every effort to do so.

"Part of having a trademark is to enforce it," he said. "If you sleep on your rights, you can lose your trademark. You can't pick and choose who you are going to use your trademark and not."

He added that it's much easier for a fire department to stop the use of a its name if it's being used fraudulently or in a way that could cause harm to the image of the department.

Varone pointing to one recent case that made headlines earlier this year after it was discovered that an adult entertainment company distributed pornographic photos containing an Albuquerque Fire Department apparatus purchased at an auction in 2008.

The company has since agreed to blur out the logos and Albuquerque's fire chief -- who was not in charge when the rig was sold -- said there are rules in place stating that all logos as well as the department's name must be removed from apparatus before they are auctioned off.