Social Media in the Fire Service
Probably others that I’m too far out of the technology loop to even grasp, being of the MySpace generation.
Social media platforms connect public safety institutions with a wider audience than could have been dreamed up twenty years ago. You can post about checking smoke alarm batteries, knowing two ways out, upcoming PR events and even hiring notices. Image-based social media platforms allow departments to proudly share images of their patron’s tax dollars at work. Your department might even use social media to field questions from the public on any number of subjects.
These are all wonderful examples of putting trendy technology to work, but social media is the ultimate modern example of a double-edged sword.We must accept that there will be times when Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat will leave us at a huge disadvantage.
Consider the guy boasting a “Find em’ Hot, Leave em’ Wet” cut-off tee shirt, or the tried and true classic “I Fight What You Fear With a Big Hose” variety of bumper sticker. He likely owns at least one shirt that reads “Hold Still While the Nice EMT Cuts Your Clothes Off.”
This fellow has almost certainly tagged his place of employment as “ABC Fire Department.”
This is a problem.
The rise of social media has put everyone and everything under a microscope. Just ten short years ago, if you said or did something dumb in public there was at least an outside chance it wouldn’t wind up on Facebook (or maybe MySpace?). Now? Anyone that has had the pleasure of watching Fail videos knows that nobody is safe.
I believe the technical term is going viral.
If a man or woman in uniform so much as farts out of turn, you can believe it will become news. As the old guys explained to me in the not-so-distant past; “Anything stupid you do is now newsworthy. Simply add local firefighter to the title, and by God, you have a story…”
And that’s fine. I don’t mind that in the least. As public servants, you give up certain comforts enjoyed in other careers, other lifestyles. Anonymity is one of them. And to be honest, if I’m a taxpaying citizen, ignorant of firehouse traditions and humor, I don’t know if I would want Firefighter “Find-em-Hot” touching my family.
You see, Firefighter “Find-em-Hot” is viewed by the public, unfairly or otherwise, as a direct representation of the taxpayer’s hard-earned money. You and I know that Find-em-Hot is a good guy and a quality firefighter, the type that would cover your shift, give you his last dollar and give your kids a ride home from school all in the same week. The public, however, doesn’t know Find-em-Hot on a personal level. All they see is a man in a tasteless shirt that supposedly works for them. Represents them. Takes their money.
Think of taxpayers as shareholders in a large company; they have only an arbitrary interest in day-to-day operations, and rarely get involved in company affairs. So long as the doors go up and blinky lights go out, they really couldn’t care less about the business aspect of things.
Unless they see something that they think could hurt their stock. Or in this case, waste their money.
The average taxpayer probably pays more for their favorite chain-restaurant sub than they contribute to your personal salary in a year, but lead them to believe that their investment of $3.85 is being squandered and you will quickly invoke their collective wraths. Just like stock in a large, stable company- good news is good news, but no news is also good news.
Enter social media…
- A firefighter in Earle, Arkansas suggested on social media that kneeling football players “… should be shot in the head.” *Fired.
- A fire Captain in Columbia, South Carolina, upon hearing that protesters had shut down a local highway, suggested that they had “… better not be there when I get off or there is gonna be some run over dumb a.” *Fired.
- A probationary firefighter in Detroit, Michigan brought a watermelon to work as a gift for his crew. *Fired
- Even after support was offered from his African-American co-workers that no harm was intended. Why? Because it doesn’t matter what your co-workers think. It’s about your stockholders and your image. No CEO (Chief) wants to give the impression that they linger in the gray area on sensitive social issues.
- Firefighters in Westfield, Texas filmed the hazing of a rookie firefighter by securing him to a backboard and pouring water and other food products on him. *One suspended, five fired.
- One of the more heinous examples of late; a Franklin Township, Ohio firefighter (using the term as loosely as possible) suggested on social media that if a house was on fire, and both a dog and a black man were trapped in said fire, that he would save the dog “… because one dog is more important than a million n******.” *Resigned.
Likely the old “A or B” option. This sparked local debates about freedom of speech. I will say it very slowly; The. First. Amendment. Protects. You. From. The. Government. It. Does. Not. Protect. You. From. Your. Employer.
Moral of the story? Your township, city, district or village will not even pretend to allow themselves to appear sympathetic to some causes, messages, and activities. I don’t say this a lot (kidding), but it’s time to pay some overdue kudos to cops. While we have spent decades being the well-liked, lovable goofballs of public service, they’ve been building a brand. You don’t see cops wearing “My Other Handcuffs Are Furry” shirts in public. And if you do? While that would be hilarious, they likely aren’t seen wearing it again if a supervisor hears about it. Because… perception.
Cops, collectively and for the most part, have put a lot of work into the illusion that they have their shit together at all times.
We are not as persistent in this endeavor.
I view this as the biggest thing separating us from cops; real respect for the position.
If we’re really honest with ourselves, the biggest reason we have a more positive public image than our brothers and sisters in blue is that we can’t send our citizens to jail, and we usually don’t inconvenience them or cost them too much money.
Don’t believe me? Conduct an inspection at a usually-friendly local business and look for the change in body language when you find something expensive that needs to be corrected. The metamorphosis form “thanks for all that you do” to “%$#@! firemen” can occur at break-neck speed. That warm, fuzzy, feel-good cushion we have enjoyed since well before I started in fire/EMS is beginning to wear thin.
But I digress… To bring it to a close;
Diamonds may be forever, but online activity is forever-adjacent. For this reason, my social media accounts identify my employer as simply “Fire Department,” and I’m still on the fence about providing even that much info.
Stay safe, and think twice before you click “share,”
The cameras are always rolling, every single time you are in uniform and sometimes when you aren’t . I’m a retired fire Captain with 31 years on the job and I am now the Mayor. I hear the bitching all the time from the public about the cost of public safety. It is paramount to keep our profession in the highest esteem.
I have a question…. you said, “Likely the old “A or B” option. This sparked local debates about freedom of speech. I will say it very slowly; The. First. Amendment. Protects. You. From. The. Government. It. Does. Not. Protect. You. From. Your. Employer.”
But as a firefighter your employer IS the government. So how can the government tell you what you can do or say off the clock away from the station. And if they can limit what you say off the clock, where does this enforceable censorship stop?
Lets say that Firefighter Smith works for the San Francisco Fire Department – a noted liberal city – and he is seen on news video off the clock on his own time, at a President Trump rally with a M.A.G.A. hat on. Can a councilwoman that just happens to know who firefighter Smith is, or someone in the department who doesn’t like him – we can’t be loved by all – sees the video of firefighter Smith with the M.A.G.A. hat on and sends it to the councilwoman who dislikes President Trump, should the council be able to force the firing of firefighter Smith or force his resignation?
I’m a little defensive about individual rights. I think that anything done off the clock should be protected even if you work for a privately owned company. Let alone if you actually work for the government. You should not be forced to give up your rights just because your paycheck is signed by the mayor.
CA Firefighter Bill of Rights as written in 2007 does not protect you from consequences including workplace investigation of/discipline for your off-duty conduct. This is the legal interpretation of Sect. 3262. It’s one of the subtle but important differences from the Peace Officer Bill of Rights from 1977. If there is a complaint about your actions off-duty that can be seen as bringing discredit upon the F.D. or can be clearly be demonstrated as eroding public trust, -AND- your employer can show a clear nexus from the alleged behavior to the impact on the agency, then they can investigate and discipline you in the workplace. You probably will still get your Weingarten rights to representation, but you have none of your other FFBOR protection.
The classic example is FF “x” goes to a strip club. FF “x” wears his fire dept. T-shirt/hat/etc. Citizen “y” sees this and files a citizens complaint at HQ against FF “x,” and he can then be investigated and disciplined without any of his normal FFBOR protections. (The catch is that if the union had put a sidebar agreement in their MOU to extend the normal FFBOR protections to their personnel for off-duty conduct, then he may have protection in this circumstance. You can always give your people more rights than the FFBOR grants, you can’t take the rights written and passed in it as legislation away. But you have to work this into your MOU as approved by the union and management.)
So, to use the example given of Firefighter Smith attending a political rally, of any type. As long as Smith is not wearing his agency shirt in the background or any other article that clearly identifies him as an Agency “z” firefighter, or he does not go up to the speaking podium and loudly declare his profession/employer, then he has made a safe career choice. If, however, he is wearing his Agency “Z” sweatshirt proudly for everyone to see, someone sees his off-duty conduct, takes offense and makes a citizen’s complaint, then he may be in jeopardy without FFBOR protections.