The Latest Danger Facing Today's Firefighter: Social Media

By Thomas Warren

Firefighters face many dangers every day. Every response exposes firefighters to the hazards of fires, hazmat incidents, communicable diseases, physical injuries, and emotional scarring. Firefighters have long known of these dangers and the effects they can have on members' careers. A new and persistent danger has now appeared in the fire service that can cause the same career-ending effect, and many firefighters have yet to recognize it. All members of the fire service must be made aware of this new danger and guard against its consequences.

What is this hideous new danger that can bring career-ending consequences? The answer is the phenomenon of social media. Firefighters have long been revered as heroes willing to risk their lives to save others. Firefighting was not considered a profession that was entered into for high wages or extravagant benefits--it was a calling. The terror attacks of 9/11 reinforced this concept in most everyone's mind. But 9/11 was 10 years ago, and in that time the technical advances in communication devices have essentially placed a movie studio in everyone's hands. Couple these technological advances with the national economic downturn and the closer scrutiny paid to firefighter wages and benefits, and you have a real problem for today's firefighters. The full extent of how this will impact the fire service is yet to be seen, but a review of some recent events should place the fire service on notice that it is not business as usual any longer.

Some of the events that have recently occurred include relatively minor incidents but that still have a negative impact on the fire service. Recently in a northeastern city, a tower ladder truck was photographed illegally parked blocking traffic on a busy downtown street while the crew of four firefighters was in a coffee shop enjoying an afternoon coffee. An aggravated civilian who was late for an appointment took a photo of the parked tower ladder and immediately e-mailed it to the mayor's office. The result was a quick and painful call from the mayor's office requiring the fire chief to explain this indulgence. In addition, a local investigative news reporter captured a video of an engine company shopping for food at a market in a neighboring city. This resulted in an investigative report on the six o'clock news and another painful call from the mayor's office requiring the local fire chief to explain why his fire trucks were out of the city.

Not all social media incidents involved are minor. Many can be very damaging, such as hazing incidents inside fire stations which find their way onto YouTube or a video from an emergency medical call finding its way to e-mail lists and Facebook, thereby violating a patient's privacy rights and HIPAA regulations. Recording and immediately transmitting events either by the public or firefighters can result in litigation for the fire department involved. Issues such as improper care at an emergency medical call, apparatus accident investigations, unnecessary damage caused by firefighters, or outright incompetence by firefighters and chief officers will be recorded and find their way into legal proceedings. Not that long ago, when a building burned to the foundation or excessive fire damage occurred, the news media reported it as a "stubborn fire" or one that was "well-involved by the time firefighters arrived." News media may now reveal that firefighters did not use the correct size hoseline, were not properly trained, or failed to use their equipment properly. Failures of the fire service will be exposed, and these failures will be validated by expert witnesses. This could result in chief officers being held accountable, possibly in court. Chief officers and firefighters will be facing disciplinary action and possibly an end to their careers.

All of these events are damaging to the fire department involved, but the fire service as a whole suffers every time negative events are recorded and make their way into the media. Every fire department in the country is suffering as critics are gaining momentum in their efforts to restructure fireground operations, staffing levels, hours, wages, and benefits. Negative social media coverage only serves to bolster their efforts. Firefighters need to understand that the general public is suffering financially and any initiative that will save tax dollars will receive serious study. The fire service can no longer rest on its laurels, feeling comfortable that the public views its members as selfless devoted heroes. The fire service is now finding itself viewed as simply another public institution that must be funded by tax dollars that the public no longer can provide. Every public agency is competing for the same few public tax dollars. The fire service in no longer sacred.

An old fire chief I know said to me not long ago, "The firemen need to start over; they need to put on a clean uniform, shine their shoes, and help the little old ladies across the street." His remarks may seem somewhat dated, but his advice was clear and very much on target. Firefighters must completely reinvent themselves as selfless public servants, willing to serve their community, perform competently, and demonstrate respect for themselves and the people they serve every day. Firefighters must be what the public expects them to be. A rebuilding process needs to take place. Social media can be used as a tool toward this goal, not as something to be defended against. Most importantly, all firefighters must realize that they are on the public stage all day every day and their activities will be judged. 

It must also be said that the pressures on firefighter's salaries and benefits are real and a product of our national economic situation. Defending, and in some cases renegotiating wages and benefits, may become necessary. It is the manner in which this is done that makes the difference, and working from a position of public admiration and respect will make that difference. It is human nature to find it personally difficult to take from those who are admired and respected. The fire service need to once again become the admired and respected organization that the public wants it to be.  Firefighters of every rank have the ability and responsibility to positively build on their public image, and it will serve every firefighter positively in the long run.

THOMAS N. WARREN has more than 40 years experience in the fire service in both career and volunteer departments. He recently retired as assistant chief of department from the Providence (RI) Fire Department after 33 years of service. He holds a bachelor's degree in fire science from Providence College, an associate degree in business administration from the Community College of Rhode Island, and a certificate in occupational safety and health from Roger Williams University.

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