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The Do’s and Don’ts of Social Media in Emergency Services

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By Dr. Shana Nicholson and Joseph Heaton

Social media has become a staple in today’s society. It is hard to find someone who does not participate in at least one service, whether it is Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. Using social media for personal reasons is socially acceptable, however, when social media and emergency services mix, an explosive concoction begins to form. A simple Google search uncovers multiple examples of emergency responders being suspended, fired, and sued for their participation—as first responders—in postings on social media.

What to Consider Before You Post
First, you have to understand how you are going to be perceived: Are you posting on your personal account or on an (un)official department page?

Posting in an Official Capacity
When posting in an official capacity, always make sure your content is respectful (and grammatically correct!). Great examples include training announcements and pictures, awards to local first responders, promotional events for local departments, general public-relation announcements, and emergency alerts. Be sure that the information posted on official accounts is respectful and reflects positively on the department.

Posting as an Individual

  1. You must determine if the general public (this includes all your “friends” and followers) can tie you to your department based on what you have posted or listed under your information. For example, if your profile picture is you in your turnout gear, you can be identified as a member of department X.
  2. Think about what you are posting and try to determine if someone in the public, from your company or from another company, would take offense to what you post. This will help determine if it will be offensive and if you are opening yourself up to a lawsuit. If you’re not sure if something is appropriate, it’s usually best not to post it. Follow this adage: “When in doubt, leave it out.”

The Don’ts of Social Media:

  • Do not post confidential information about patients that can in any way identify them or the emergency event they were involved in. Posting confidential information may alert a person’s family and friends about an incident, which could cause panic and possibly another emergency event. For example, no one wants to be alerted via Facebook that their cousin just passed away in a motor vehicle accident.
  • Do not post information or a picture of an active scene. Posting pictures of an ongoing police investigation is a criminal offense.
  • If pictures are posted of a previous scene, do not become an “armchair critic.” We all make mistakes—it is an inevitable part of the job. However, criticizing your department or any other department could cause bad blood. Do not do it. Especially considering that emergency services are having a hard time recruiting new members, it is unwise to give people a reason to leave or not work with each other.
  • Do not have inappropriate relationships with patients. Nothing says liability like having inappropriate relations with a current or former patient. There are many laws and ethics that govern such activities, but the best thing you can do is stay away. This includes everything from becoming “friends” with the patient to having sexual relations.
  • Finally, do not post or become involved in any activity that will promote defamation of someone’s character or decrease the morale in your department or in surrounding companies.

Social media is a great tool. However, like any tool, we must learn how to use it correctly so it doesn’t harm us. Following these simple rules and concepts will help foster a better environment, maintain strong public relations with the community, and, most importantly, keep the department and its members out of court.

Remember, whether you are paid or volunteer, you are responsible for what you post on social media and you can be sued, so always think twice before posting: When in doubt, leave it out.

About the Authors:
Shana Nicholson headshot_v2
Dr. Shana Nicholson has more than 20 years of emergency medical and fire science service experience. Her professional background also includes government, social services, and nonprofit administration. She is currently a faculty member in emergency and disaster management at American Military University. She received a bachelor’s in criminal justice from Fairmont State University, a master’s of science in Human Services with a specialization in criminal justice from Capella University and a PhD in human services with a counseling specialization also from Capella University.

Joe HeatonJoseph Heaton has more than five years of service as a volunteer EMT and firefighter. Currently, Mr. Heaton serves as a line officer for Farmingdale Fire Department in Farmingdale, NJ. He received a bachelor’s degree in public health and a master’s degree in biomedical science from Rutgers. He is currently pursuing admission to medical school.

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