Using Social Media to Advance the Fire Department Mission

A fire department utilizes Twitter to provide community residents with current information regarding its response to a natural disaster. Its neighboring community provides instructions on evacuation and shelter options. Another fire department utilizes Facebook to provide fire prevention information, while its neighbor uses Facebook to explain to voters why a tax levy is necessary to continue its level of service.

In an older, but transitioning, neighborhood, a fire station utilizes Nextdoor to interact with the residents within its first-due district, and to address issues that pertain only to the neighborhood. In another city, the human resource department begins to utilize Antezen as part of the municipality’s hiring process, conducting advanced searches of resumes to determine whether a prospective employee will fit in well with the boss or work team.

A large city fire department with numerous employees uses Ning to update internal forums and to increase collaboration among employees, while a smaller, non-profit fire department uses its social media site, also built on the Ning platform, to spread information about new department activities and missions. A national fire service organization utilizes and Waywire to monitor topic-based discussions, obtain public feedback through the use of polls and provide videos of emergency scenes to the public.

Ten years ago, a fire service leader would not have thought of, let alone used, these social media sites. When social media forums like first emerged, many people looked at them as a passing fad, or a diversion for adolescents. Although Myspace may not have kept up with other social media sites, social media revenue is expected to generate $34 billion by 2016, up from $11.8 billion in 2011. Clearly, social media is an important economic and cultural force shaping our society.

Social Media at the Departmental Level
Until recently, social media was something most fire service leaders used only on a personal level; fire department use was limited to posting pictures or highlighting upcoming activities. But the time to recognize social media for its many uses and applications is now upon us, and leaders who ignore this trend will be left out in the cold–much as the Swiss were when they ignored the new digitalized watch.

Although up-and-coming fire service leaders must still understand how to extinguish structure fires, they must also understand the administrative issues they will face in managing a fire department. Home construction hasn’t remained the same, and neither will the future challenges presented by the ever-changing digital age.

Younger firefighters have grown up with electronics. They have been educated through the use of computers. They exercise using web-based games. They no longer read newspapers or paper magazines, and expect the content of the material being provided to them to be neatly packaged in digital formats. New firefighters may also have a more limited attention span, and as a result, critical information must be delivered in shorter segments. A fire service leader must understand these trends, which apply to not only their own firefighters, but to the general public as well.

Fire service leaders must embrace this use of technology and use it to their advantage. From a personal standpoint, the opportunities for education and the exchange of ideas through various online media sites and blogs are greater than ever. Fire service leaders have the opportunity to network with each other through sites such as LinkedIn. Fire chiefs and administrators can now interact more readily with members of the public, and are able to spread information with department activities in ways never previously considered. Residents can also be better served by receiving critical information in times of emergencies. Gone are the days when residents had to rely solely upon hearing an emergency siren and tuning into a local television station for news–now, they have information at their fingertips via smartphones.

A recent survey conducted by the American Red Cross revealed that 80% of residents believe that emergency response organizations should monitor social media sites regularly. More importantly, the same survey found that the Internet is the third most popular way for the public to gather information about emergencies. In 2011, people in New York received Tweets about an earthquake in Virginia before they even felt the tremors.

When dealing with community crises and disasters, fire departments must have a communication plan in place, and execute that plan. These plans provide the department with an ability to demonstrate its competence and expertise. The fire department should understand that social media provides it the opportunity to confirm facts and keep residents informed, including information that may not always be positive. More importantly, it provides the fire department with the opportunity to include the community in positive action steps to resolve or mitigate the crisis.

Rights & Responsibilities  
Social media is not without its negative side either, and a progressive fire service leader must understand those issues as well. Recently, an EMS lieutenant from a large metropolitan department was exposed for uploading racist rants onto his personal social media page. In a southern city, a fire captain was disciplined for derogatory comments he made about city residents. These postings, when discovered by the media, go viral and expose both the employee and the department to unwanted media attention.

The frequent administrative response to this potential problem is to limit or ban the use of social media by public servants. In addition to being overly simplistic, such bans or restrictions will likely violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and only place the fire service leader at greater risk.

Fire service leaders must understand the application of the First Amendment in addressing issues that may infringe upon a public employee’s right to free speech. A public employee has a right, as a private citizen, to speak on matters of public concern as long as the speech does not cause actual harm or disruption to department operations. A “matter of public concern” generally relates to political, social or other issues that concern the community as a whole.

On the other hand, an employee’s speech is not protected when the statements are made pursuant to their official job duties or responsibilities, or when the speech relates purely to personal grievances and criticisms of internal fire department management decisions. Even then, however, fire service administrators must understand that certain exceptions may apply, such as when the speech is directed to fellow employees involved in a concerted effort to improve workplace conditions, wages or hours of work in a collective bargaining or similar setting. To discipline employees without understanding these provisions may place the fire chief and their employer at risk for a civil rights claim.

Likewise, fire service leaders must understand the responsibility that comes with sponsoring a social media site for their department. The First Amendment permits the government to regulate the manner and method by which speech is presented, but not to regulate the content of the speech, unless the speech is obscene, false or deceptive, libelous, slanderous or misleading. Public agencies that allow public comment on their social media sites must be prepared to deal with criticism and negative comments.

A good fire service leader must also recognize that the potential for negative press to go “viral” is greater now than ever before, which can create a public relations nightmare. Each agency must have a plan in place to conduct damage control. The fire department must be prepared to get its side of the story out first, and whenever possible, to be the first agency to release bad news. Some tips to consider:

  • Provide every bit of information that you’re legally, morally and ethically able to provide.
  • Use department social media sites to provide facts of an event to those who care about the organization the most.
  • Keep messages simple, short and positive. Whenever possible, include solutions. The maximum message cannot exceed 20 seconds.
  • Monitor the Web to identify current issues and which ones must be immediately addressed.

A Final Message
Social media cannot be pushed aside as a short-term trend or as a tool used only for entertainment. Opportunities to disseminate information within a fire department, to residents and to the media are greater than ever before. Aggressive and emerging leaders will use the many social media tools to their advantage to build and reinforce the excellent reputation of the fire service.

The possibilities are endless for the imaginative chief or administrator. At the same time, these leaders will recognize that residents and employees will sometimes use the same tools in ways that negatively affect a fire department or the fire service. A prepared fire department will have a plan in place to deal with negative press and will use any opportunity to further its mission in and relationship with the community.

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