Chief Lessons: When the Cyberbully Attacks

By Dennis L. Rubin

Many issues have a negative impact on the fire chief’s role and responsibilities today. Among the most recent is the cyberbully, who can have an impact and adverse effects on this public safety mission critical position. I have worked as a fire chief for more than three decades in several very different communities in the Deep South as well as in major urban centers. During this work experience, I became the target of many Internet comments, negative blog entries, and personal attacks that far exceeded the First Amendment rights (freedom of speech) of the blogging cyberbully. These electronic attacks included threats of bodily injury.

The computer connectivity of just about everyone in the fire service has changed the instant-communication landscape, perhaps setting the stage for misuse or even abuse of this medium. Will the Internet blogs, social media sites, and other “anonymous voices” become an overwhelming burden for a fire chief? We will look at some of the negative effects of a cyberbully on the fire chief’s position and a few suggestions for preventing or at least minimizing the impact of these burdensome distractors.

Even though the “virtual world” has been around for a while, it seems like only a few short years ago that the Internet gained popularity in the fire service. Most small- and medium-sized fire departments typically run behind other businesses as it relates to adopting computer applications. It seems as if we have been relegated to this second-place position for a number of reasons. Generally, public safety administrations are deficient in finances and human resources. These limits make it nearly impossible to keep up with our private-sector counterparts. These funding and staffing dilemmas cause the slow adaptation of even the wisest and proven business practices, especially if they cost money or require staffing to implement. As with all trends, there are a few departments on the leading edge; they have been able to move quickly into technology and to use it to enhance the efficiency, effectiveness, and safety of their department operations. However, it took most departments a little longer to embrace the use of various types of computer-aided processes because of the above-mentioned restrictions. By now, the transition to move toward the application of technology in all aspects of our industry is well underway. You could guess that the cyberbully phenomenon was bound to happen, and it appears to be in full bloom inside of many fire-rescue organizations.

A Step Back In Time

When I was appointed to the Fairfax County (VA) Fire Department in October 1971, the computer technology equivalent was a Royal impact typewriter. This glossy finished, oily smelling, weighty monstrosity was the centerpiece on top of every watch desk and company officer’s work station. The keyboard was about the only element that looks the same on a modern computer. To operate this shiny, heavy-metal beast, the “key” operator had to master the terms “bond,” onionskin,” and “carbon paper.” This was no easy task, and most firefighters would rather calculate friction loss for three 2½ -inch and two 3-inch hoselines than type a report using this device. There was no automatic formatting, print button, or delete key. To erase a mistake, you were limited to using a product called “White-Out”, which stuck out like a sore thumb on the paper. Back then, to type a report or, worse yet, to complete a form (it was nearly impossible to line up a document in the carriage with the type face) was a long, drawn-out process. Thank goodness for the convenience of the modern computer with an attached printer. Not only is the work effort easier and more professional with a computer, it is also less expensive and less stressful.

The other technology advancement that has become a critical and transparent operational element is the cell phone. In the 1970s and into the 1980s, the chief’s aides (drivers) had to carry a pocket full of small change. On a routine basis, the field chiefs would have to make telephone calls from the streets of the city, usually to fire alarm headquarters, the shift commander’s office, and various fire stations. After the first few dimes were swallowed by the corner “Ma Bell” pay telephone, the battalion chief would ask the aide (buggy driver) for a dime to make the requested call from the coin-operated telephone. Although the cell phone becomes an “electronic leash” and adds a dash more of stresses into our lives, it and its supporting technology have been a marvelous invention. Based on the amount and type of information that a modern operations chief must handle, the cell phone has earned its place as a mission-critical workplace tool.

There has always been an information flow moving inside and outside our organizations. Just as with almost everything, some departments are better at communications than others. However, the use of computers, the Internet, and cell telephones has changed the speed and capabilities dramatically and forever. This genie will not be placed back into the the bottle.  

Electronic Messaging from Department Members

Today’s fire chief has to contend with electronic messaging, including YouTube videos, also from department members. This is happening all over the country. It seems as if a different fire chief is under attack by a cyberbully’s poison keyboard just about every day.

Recently, a story emerged from Colorado Springs (CO) Fire Department that someone from within the department produced a YouTube video clip about the chief of the department, in which the chief was cast in the role of Adolf Hitler. The news story said many expletives were inserted into the “part” that the chief was to be portraying. I am not sure how this YouTube episode resolved, but the chief definitely had to be humiliated and embarrassed.

While serving as chief of the Washington, DC, Fire Department, a department trial board recommended termination for a misbehaving former firefighter of our department.  After the termination process, I found myself, as the chief, the star of the YouTube video “Chief Dennis’ Used Condom Factor.” According to the video, the three highest senior ranking members of the department would search the streets for used condoms, which they washed and reused. Needless to say, although this animated video might seem “crazy” to some viewers, it was demoralizing and embarrassing for the chief officers who, in this case, carried out the will of the fire department trial board. The cyberbully struck again.

What Can Be Done?

First, keep in mind that about 99 percent of fire department personnel are good people; only a few misfits behave this way. Do not take the attacks personally. I know this is difficult.  When the attacks start, the bully will attempt to eat you alive in front of as large an audience as possible. Do not lose your temper. Do not engage the cyberbully on his level. Let the comments roll off your back. Do not make a comment electronically that you may regret. If you say anything at this point, the bully will exploit the response, and it will make a bad situation worse. For me, this was the toughest part. The more you engage the bully on his terms, the more attention for the bully. This attention is the only twisted gratification the cyberbully can get. The more attention paid to the bullying, the more cyberattacks for the chief. The attacks will become more caustic as well. Not responding may break the vicious cycle before it gets out of control. If you respond to the attacks, many on the sidelines will find it entertaining.  Stop the cycle as soon as you can.

Remember that the chief is always under a microscope, so don’t do anything stupid. Avoid behaviors that can end up coming across poorly. The cyberbullies will not have to make up stories about you if you give them one to report. Be on notice to properly behave on and off duty because someone is always watching.

Select only the best candidates for your fire-rescue departments based on national entry standards. I have heard California Highway Patrol Commander (Ret.) Gordon Graham say over and over again, “Never hire idiots and thugs because they will always be idiots and thugs. ” If you hire a bully, that person most likely has the potential to become a cyberbully. If a department can filter out that one percent, life would be easier for everyone.

Prepare your boss before the cyberattacks have time to get started on the Internet. In cases where you have terminated an employee, keep the boss in the loop, and make him aware of the personnel action you have implemented. I was able to survive four years in Washington, D.C., primarily because the mayor trusted me and communicated with me regularly. My goal was that there be no surprises about me for the mayor, whether about my performance or what was happening within the agency.


Dennis Rubin has written a book that has more details and case studies about being a fire chief in a fairly busy city–Washington, D.C that will be out with Fire Engineering Books toward the end of the year. If you enjoyed this information, you will certainly like D.C. Fire: It’s Not Just a Job.

Dennis L. RubinDennis L. Rubin is the principal partner in the fire protection-consulting firm D.L. Rubin & Associates. His experience in fire and rescue service spans more than 35 years. He has served as a company officer; command level officer; and fire chief in several major cities, including Dothan, Alabama, Norfolk, Virginia, Atlanta, Georgia and Washington, D.C. He served on several committees with the International Association of Fire Chiefs, including a two-year term as the Health and Safety Committee Chair, and he is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officers Program (EFOP). 

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