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The Benefits (and Dangers) of Using Social Media in the Fire Services

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By Leischen Stelter

Like it or not, social media is here to stay. It’s a tool fire departments can use to build goodwill within their communities and improve how they communicate with the people they serve, however, it’s also something fire departments should enter into strategically.

During a webinar hosted by the International Association of Fire Chiefs and sponsored by American Military University, two experienced fire leaders discussed how fire departments should approach social media, the importance of developing policies (yes, that’s multiple policies), as well as best practices to avoid some of the horror stories we’ve heard on the news.

The webinar featured Attorney Curt Varone, who has more than 37 years in the fire service and is the former Deputy Chief of Providence Fire Department. It also featured Dave Statter, who is a news reporter in Washington, D.C. and the editor of the website STATter911, which focuses on fire and EMS issues.

[You can watch the full webinar here]

Varone began the presentation by emphasizing that social media use is exploding (watch this great video to give yourself a sense of how big social media really is) and what a “valuable tool technology is offering us if we’re willing to embrace it.”

He recognized that one of the reasons departments don’t embrace social media is because many fire leaders aren’t comfortable with technology. In very general terms, there tends to be two groups: an older, more conservative and less tech-savvy group; and a younger, more liberal, high-tech group. For the younger group, social media is just another way of communicating, but for the older group it’s often a new and slightly daunting form of communication.

And there’s issues with both groups. The older generation tends to avoid social media, whereas the younger generation often takes it too far:

“The younger generation is coming up with level of comfort with technology that often collides with their job responsibilities,” said Statter. “When I lecture fire chiefs about it they say it’s just a lack of common sense. Well, from my perspective, it’s a known problem, it’s a clear problem, and we’ve got to do something about it.”

There were several case studies presented during the webinar that featured firefighters who had been reprimanded for their (mis)use of social media – some were understandable, others seemed ludicrous. So, what was the common denominator for many of these cases? Well, it was the fact that none of those involved tried to hide their identity:

“These firefighters made no effort to disguise their identity,” said Varone. “People didn’t make an effort, which to me, says they don’t realize they’re doing anything wrong.”

The consequences of many of these incidents have reached far beyond punishing the individual, too. In several cases, fire chiefs have been asked to resign and their reputation has been damaged. When incidents make it to the media spotlight, it damages the reputation of the department as well.

Develop a Policy – AND REVIEW IT OFTEN!

Varone (the attorney) said fire departments often need multiple policies. First of all, it’s critical to have a digital imagery policy, which is about 50% of the solution, he said. Digital imagery spurs other issues such as public records laws (if you’re on-duty and take a picture, is that now considered a public record?). Also, there may be the possibility that that picture may be used as evidence, so then there’s laws about what you must do to retain those images.

The other policies should focus on balancing employer rights with employee rights. In terms of employee rights, there are three broad categories that must be addressed: privacy/liberty rights, first amendment rights, collective bargaining rights.

While there are model policies for fire departments (check out the IAFC’s model policy), fire departments must develop policies that are specific to them. “I’ve written dozens of policies and none have been identical,” said Varone. “I don’t envision any two policies will be the same.”

It’s also important to regularly review your social media policy because things change so fast. Varone says he addresses his policies every six months. “There are so many moving parts in a policy and you need to update it every year and often sooner than that,” he said. 

Be sure your policy addresses how your department will handle the not-so-glowing comments it’s bound to get. Remember, social media is an interactive tool. Platforms like Facebook enable the public to post comments, good and bad, on your site. It’s important to talk about how to best handle those situations.

“If someone in the public posts something inappropriate on your site, who’s responsible?” asked Varone. “There are restrictions on what content you’re going to allow because at some point it’s your Facebook account and to some extent you’re responsible. You do have the responsibility to manage that well.” 

Don’t Just Write it, Teach it

But the work isn’t done after the policy is drafted. “Besides a policy for digital imagery and social media, departments need to teach people and train them,” said Statter. There needs to be strong leadership in place to teach people about social media usage. “Fire leaders need to address social media in recruit school and they need to lay out their expectations early,” he said.

The reality is, firefighters are on duty 24 hours a day and they represent the department and the city 24 hours day. Even though many of these cases occurred while off-duty, firefighters and public employees are often held to a higher standard – that’s just the reality of the job, said Statter.

If it’s So Much Trouble, Why Use Social Media?

Well, you don’t really have a choice – you’re involved whether you like it or not. And, there are amazing opportunities to seize (really). Here are the big ones:

  • Building Goodwill within your Community
    Social media presents fire departments an opportunity that they’ve never had before: The ability to communicate directly with the public. “Fire departments are finding ways they can use Twitter and Facebook and the Internet to talk directly to the people they serve,” Varone said. He talked about the importance of building “reputation equity” and goodwill within your community. Social media is a way to inform those you serve about what you do to protect them.  
  • Social Media is Free (sort of)
    Social media tools like Facebook and Twitter are free, but using them effectively might cost some money. For example, Varone emphasized the importance of having a Public Information Officer who is experienced with social media. He recognized that in today’s difficult economic climate it may seem like a luxury for a department to have a PIO, but really, it’s a necessity. Since you’re building reputation equity it’s important to have someone dedicated to this important effort.
  • Enhanced and Direct Communication
    This line of communication is important in good times and bad. In good times it’s important to inform the public about what you do on a daily activity to keep them safe. In bad times, it’s important to be able to structure a direct message to the public about the situation. No longer do fire departments have to rely on traditional news media to communicate with the people they serve – they can do it straight through social media and are able to better control the message.

Overall, social media should be viewed as an opportunity for fire departments, but it’s something that needs to be entered into strategically, with forethought and policies to back it up.

What’s holding your department back?

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