Social Media Policies in the Fire Service

Social media, once a growing trend, is now part of everyday life. Going on vacation? Keep your friends back home up to date on Facebook. Concocted the best firehouse chili of your career? Stick that recipe on Pinterest. Proud of your department’s response to a multi-car accident? Tweet out a photo of the mangled wreckage.

Um, wait a minute. That last example shouldn’t be part of anyone’s use of social media. However, it’s highly likely that your department has had to deal with firefighters sharing information, photos and videos that are unprofessional at best and an ethical or regulatory violation at worst.

That’s why it’s essential to have a solid social media policy in place for your department that provides guidelines (or rules) for personal use of Facebook, Twitter and the like. In fact, Washington, D.C., Fire & EMS recently instituted a policy prohibiting employees from taking or transmitting any photos or video of fire or accident scenes.

Policy Matters

Even if you’re not willing to go as far as D.C. did, Bill Boyd, retired fire chief and corporate health and safety coordinator at Coastal Industrial Services in Bellingham, Wash., says that a social media policy is “absolutely needed.” He explains, “There are too many examples of social media ‘fails.’ At minimum, a department needs guidelines on what is and isn’t appropriate–such as not disclosing HIPAA-protected information.” Boyd adds that a policy should also cover inappropriate on-duty or personal use of department equipment, comments about the employer (the department) and comments where the commenter is viewed as a representative of the department.

All these sections can be found in a model social media policy available from the IAFC. Members of IAFC can download it for free from http://iafc.org/files/secure/index.cfm?FileID=12622.

A Culture of Sharing

Dave Statter, who runs the blog STATter911.com, supports the idea of having a social media policy in place, but believes that the message must be continually reinforced. “Policies are extremely important, but as much as anything you have to work on the culture,” he says. “We have a generation or two of firefighters today who were raised putting everything they do on the Internet. That doesn’t always work well with public safety.”

Statter’s advice is to set expectations for social media usage with each firefighter starting on the first day of employment–and give regular reminders. “At the lowest level, there is a disconnect regarding other people’s privacy,” he says of firefighters posting on-scene information. He recalls an instance where a firefighter asked a neighbor to take his photo posing in front of a burned-out home; the neighbor complained to the department. “I don’t think it’s malicious,” says Statter. “I think they just don’t think of [who it affects]–and that’s why it’s important to have those talks.”

Statter believes departments are getting better about educating firefighters on how to avoid inappropriate posting. “I’ve seen great improvement,” he says. “I look at hundreds of firefighters’ videos every day while looking for content for my blog, and I’m seeing fewer and fewer videos that firefighters have posted where they’re doing something stupid. That’s heartening–but there’s still more work to be done.”

Using Social Media Wisely

Even as departments focus on policies that guide personal use of social media, they must also develop <i>departmental</i> use of these valuable tools. Facebook and Twitter can be used effectively to quickly share information with the public and the media, replacing press releases and phone calls, and streamlining the job of the public information officer (PIO).

Take the example of Mark Brady, chief spokesman and PIO for Prince George’s County (Md.) Fire/EMS. Brady writes and manages the department’s blog (www.pgfdnews.com), where all news and photos are posted. He uses blog content for Twitter, which also automatically posts to the department’s Facebook page. This is now the main way that he communicates with the public and the media. “Before, when something happened, my phone was ringing off the hook. Now one Tweet lets everyone know what’s going on,” he says. While members of the department are encouraged to submit articles and news for the blog, Brady says, “I keep the keys to the car. That [blog] is my personal reputation as well as the department’s.”

Boyd is a big proponent of fire departments investing in regular use of social media. “The biggest thing departments are missing out on is direct community engagement and building trust with the public,” he says. “Plus, younger people in the fire service have been brought up on these platforms. This will become the norm of communication.”

It’s obvious that social media is here to stay, and that your members and your community are all over it. Now it’s time to take a look at how your department is going to address it.

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