Social Media: The Rules Are Already on the Books


A local reporter informs you that one of your firefighters is posting questionable photos online and is not only wearing your fire department’s T-shirt but also posts racially charged comments that have drawn complaints to the paper. The reporter asks you, “Does your department have a social media policy?”

For some chiefs, this is their worst nightmare. Fortunately, they already have a policy in place to address these kinds of situations.

Chief fire officers strive to ensure the policies and procedures officers and firefighters follow are up to date and based on best practices. In the past five years, many departments quickly adopted policies addressing what they saw as a threat to the department: social media. Privacy concerns were voiced, city attorneys suggested blanket blackout policies, and some departments simply did nothing.

The prevailing opinion seems to be a blackout on social media participation, forbidding members from posting anything while on duty and further suggesting that they not participate in “social media” or sharing of any kind at all. Although off-duty activities may not be directly covered under department policy, when something goes wrong it can all look bad, on or off duty.

Although this seems like a simple solution that eliminates concerns about sharing media that could be perceived as detrimental to the department, it may have just made things worse. With departments banning public sharing, some members have adopted the cloak of Internet anonymity, allowing them to run freely with their opinions. Internet anonymity is a powerful tool for members who wish to spread rumor, comment negatively, and still share information and opinions the blanket policy intended to prevent. With user names such as AxeMan2002 and FireEater, members can hide in plain sight in blog comment sections and on video-sharing sites. By creating sharing media accounts focused on their agencies, they can avoid having to stand up publicly to take credit or responsibility for their content. They stalk in the shadows, waiting to spread their negativity wherever it will be seen the most. I know-I used to be an anonymous Internet fire service stalker.


Early on December 17, 2007, my engine company was working on the second floor of a large theater fully engulfed in fire. As we pushed the fire out the large front windows, I traded the nozzle and helped the firefighter in front of me advance the line. Next thing I knew, my chinstrap was in front of my face and everyone was shouting, “Man down! Man down!” A section of the ceiling had fallen 30 feet onto my helmet, knocking me to my knees. My body healed quickly-my emotions did not. I was angry, tired, scared, and quickly approaching burnout. In the weeks that followed, I was encouraged to start a journal or diary to work through my recovery.

Instead of running the risk of someone finding my diary in the firehouse, I started an anonymous Internet blog. It was very easy to create a free anonymous e-mail account and sign up for all manner of sharing media accounts. I adopted a nickname as my online persona, the Happy Medic, and chose a simple logo for my avatar. Once I was set up, I could comment, write, and share without anyone knowing my true identity.

The anonymity was liberating. I wasn’t judged by my name, my department, or my level of training. It didn’t matter what color my apparatus was or which coast I was on-I was judged solely on my comments, my opinions, and my writing style.

Although I carefully hid my identity, I shared what frustrated me about the fire and the emergency medical services (EMS), which ultimately led to my swift recovery from my emotional injuries and created endless opportunities to speak nationwide on EMS and the growing popularity of social sharing sites. I was even invited to England to observe its rescue systems firsthand-all because of online sharing. My opportunities blossomed while others were learning the hard way how not to use social media inappropriately.

For every story of how the medium can be used for good, another story of foolish use would overshadow it. As easy as it is to share the good, it is just as easy to share the bad.

Modern technology has put a computer in our hands. Cell phones are rarely used to make phone calls and are instead wireless tethers to the entire world. Apps allow direct capture of images to be uploaded to multiple other apps to instantly share content, sometimes before the user has a chance to realize what is happening. Ask politicians caught sending inappropriate photos how easy it is to make a bad decision using these devices. But more importantly, ask them why they were so inspired to share the moment they were in. What was the goal? Why did it need to be shared? What was it about that moment that required them to stop living it and start sharing it? These are the questions chief officers must ask themselves and their members.


Renny Gleeson, in a 2009 TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Talk on antisocial phone tricks, solved my challenge of addressing the sharing media desire so engrained in cell phone and computer users. Gleeson introduced the concept of the conflict between personal narrative and shared narrative. Personal narrative describes your own experiences. Any experience in which you were a participant that you describe after the fact is personal narrative. Your wedding day, the first time you led a charged line down a burning hallway, and that fishing story no one believes are all examples of personal narrative.

At some point in the past decade, personal narrative morphed into shared narrative. Shared narrative describes the sharing of a moment as it happens, which inadvertently interferes with the moment itself, becoming part of the moment instead of simply capturing it.

A few years back, I finally convinced my young daughters to sit still on the couch and watch the movie Star Wars. The popcorn was popped, the lemonade stirred, blankets were on the couch, and the surround sound was turned up. Everything was perfect. As the John Williams score filled the room, I got goose bumps. We were sharing something so exciting I suddenly had the desire to document this moment in time. As I crouched in front of the couch underneath the TV to snap a quick picture, my five-year-old pointed at the TV and said, “Daddy? What do those words say?”

I missed the opening scroll. My desire to document and share this amazing moment directly altered it. It was a moment I would never get back, and I can’t blame an app, a site, a friends list, or any other piece of technology. I can only blame myself.

The couple enjoying a sunset can’t blame a social sharing site when they decide to turn away from the sunset to capture a quick photo. They need to understand that letting that moment happen is far more powerful than sharing the moment with others as it happens.

Just ask firefighters captured taking photos at fires while waiting for water or as other units are responding. Why was this so important to share? Why not wait?

The core of the sharing and social media problem is not technology; it is your firefighters and their desires to share at all.

Using the Internet to share is nothing new, and it’s not going away anytime soon. It is a powerful medium that the fire department should leverage to ensure that the community is receiving accurate information during and after emergencies, as well as fire prevention tips, road closures, and other community announcements.

Technology allows your public information officer to share information in real time just as easily as a disgruntled firefighter can spout disinformation. It is not the manner in which the message is shared but the motivation to share those opinions.

Any social or sharing media policy that specifically addresses certain sites, methods of sharing, or attempts to single out electronic communication is doomed to fail. As mentioned earlier, blanket policies don’t prevent sharing but encourage those who wish to share to step into the shadows of Internet anonymity.

Chances are your department already has rules in place to deal with sharing sites. Any rules about electronic communication in the public domain should be applicable under the off-duty decorum policy. A policy mandating the misconduct investigation of a member for saying something in a crowded restaurant in your district must also apply to electronic communications.


Blanket policies prohibiting electronic sharing may offer a sense of relief from negative sharing, but they also limit positive sharing. The firefighter who volunteers at the food bank can no longer share his department affiliation with this cause. The captain who created the charity can no longer be associated with the department. Members will no longer be able to wear logo apparel when out making a positive contribution to the community. Granted, the employee who wears your logo to the local tavern and causes trouble will still be there. Perhaps it is the member, not the technology, who must be the focus when dealing with troublesome sharing.

Responsible firefighters will use technology appropriately; those who constantly find trouble will likely not understand the impact of some of their shared narratives. It is this lack of understanding that leads to the capture and sharing of patient photos; scene images; helmet camera video (not approved by the fire department prior to release, which you should be doing by the way); and angry rants about religion, politics, race, and other hot water topics by firefighters who have always had these impulses. Sharing media sites allow bad people to do bad things at the speed of 4g.

Departments must enforce current rules and regulations relating to decorum to deal with inappropriate sharing. New rules will simply push members from where we can see them to where we can’t.

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