There’s no doubt that the use of social media for public relations and public distribution of information is a powerful tool. It’s a tool that a city government or first responders can use to their benefit. Evacuations, weather or traffic warnings, and other information can easily be shared via Twitter, Facebook, and other social media applications.
But, if social media a useful tool for an individual fire company? The jury is out on how fire companies both use and misuse social media. And frankly, it may be that each situation is so unique that there is no single answer.
To help put things in perspective, let’s look at some positive uses, and some issues to be careful to avoid.
In many communities, fire stations (or fire houses), police stations, etc. are community centers. The public is welcome and often interacts, both for community meetings and other purposes.
Sharing information on station activities, including shelter, events, and training can be useful information for the public. It can help create a stronger bond between a local fire company and the residents of their district.
During a disaster, sharing a photo with family or with your department’s operations center can be important and useful. Often, phone lines, including mobile phone service will be disrupted following an earthquake, tornado, etc. Yet, Internet access often remains up and available. In those situations, social media can be your friend.
One of the key issues is related to whom uses the various tools – you, your senior officer, or a PSO/PIO? For the purposes of this discussion, we’re limiting the dialog to those individuals who work within a fire company, not the administration.
THE NOT SO GOOD:
Grabbing photos of incidents can be useful, but should be considered a separate function from the use of social media. Nearly everyone has a camera in their smartphone, and as you know, nearly everyone you know has a smartphone of some kind. But it isn’t all good…
Firefighters take photos of an incident and tweet or facebook the photo. This distracts them from their primary purpose while on-scene, and if a patient is included, could violate HIPAA and EHR privacy protections, putting the agency they work for at risk.
Another risk of taking photos, sending tweets, or otherwise publicly discussing on-scene or fireground operations is the risk of inadvertently exposing improper operations or activities. What if your firefighters aren’t wearing their SCBAs? What if you public a shot of your engineer driving the rig, and he/she only has one hand on the wheel? What if the IC isn’t wearing a full set of PPEs or his/her helmet?
Don’t publish on-scene photos to Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, etc.
Consider the options and potential liabilities before you publish or chat about your on-scene work.
Consider your department’s standard operating guidelines (SOGs) and self-police your use of social media, or someone else will do that for you.
Overall, social media is an essential component of public communications in today’s complex world. There is absolutely a place for social media in the fire service, police service, etc. The key is knowing when, how, and why sharing information via social media will be beneficial to the public, to your brothers and sisters, your employer, and yourself.