Social Media: One Department’s Success Story

By Matthew Hertzfeld

Many fire departments struggle with arson reporting. However, the Toledo (Ohio) Fire and Rescue Department (TFRD) is trying something new: reporting arson on its Facebook page.

This feature is just the latest way we are reaching out to the public through social media. Although most businesses today are embracing social media as an integral part of their communications and marketing efforts, public institutions have been slower to follow suit, for a variety of reasons. With budgets shrinking and more and more people turning to digital platforms for information about their communities, our department decided that we were missing a key opportunity to strengthen our relationship with the public.

We started by redesigning our Web site, www.toledofirerescue.com. The previous Web site had a lot of information, but much of it was hard to find and nearly impossible to read on Smartphones or tablets like the iPad. So, we partnered with a digital agency, Hanson Inc. (www.hansoninc.com), to reorganize the content on our site. Now, it’s “responsively designed,” which means it adjusts to fit the display of whatever device it is accessing so that it’s just as easy to browse on a Smartphone as it is on a desktop computer.

Next, we worked with Hanson to develop a social media strategy that took into consideration who our public is (citizens, elected officials, news media), where they are active in social spaces, and the best ways to engage with them. That’s when we decided to focus our efforts on Facebook.

Most of what we post on Facebook (www.facebook.com/toledofirerescue) are photos and videos that tell the behind-the-scenes story of our department. Most citizens think of our work as firefighting only, but we’re a multihazard response team, providing all the emergency medical services in Toledo. And, we have five technical rescue teams. So, the photos and videos we put on Facebook allow people to get a more accurate look at all the services we provide, including training and public safety education.

The great thing about social media (and that which also scares a lot of people away from it) is that it’s a two-way communication. When we post something on Facebook, people respond, and it can turn into a dialogue, which is something we couldn’t do with traditional media. We still engage traditional media since not all Toledo residents are on Facebook. But, now people can ask questions directly or thank crews who responded to specific incidents. In 2012, we responded to more than 55,000 incidents; very busy for a city the size of Toledo, so that’s a lot of opportunities for dialogue. We have received messages from people in other parts of the world, which is something we never anticipated.

One of our goals going forward is to increase engagement on the nonincident specific information we post, like fire prevention and other safety tips. And, depending on the response to arson reporting through Facebook, we may add additional features there to help us interact directly with the public on specific issues.

In the year since we started reinventing our digital presence, our department has discovered that social media really is a game changer, allowing us to communicate directly to citizens. For example, some of the videos we’ve posted have more than 12,000 views! To other departments that are considering it, I say: It’s a commitment, and if you can’t sustain it, don’t do it. But, if you’re going to do it, do it the right way. Work with a digital agency–like we did–to learn best practices and avoid common pitfalls. Make it someone’s job to keep your pages updated, and be prepared to keep learning along the way.

Recently, the TFRD experienced the loss of two firefighters in the line of duty. On January 26, 2014, Stephen A. Machcinski, 42, and James Dickman, 31, died of injuries sustained while fighting a structure fire. Using social media, the TFRD reported their deaths as well as funeral details through its Facebook page. In addition, the general public was able to post condolences and even organize a food drive for all of the department’s stations. A link was also included on the page allowing for community donations and condolences to the firefighters’ families. To date, close to $7,000 has been raised through this link.

“Going social” clearly has been the right choice for my department. I continue to be amazed at what we are learning and at the support the department is gaining because of it.

For more on the TFRD LODDs, please click on the following links:

 

Matthew Hertzfeld is a lieutenant and the public information officer for Toledo (OH) Fire and Rescue Department. He has been an active firefighter for 29 years. As PIO, Hertzfeld’s  duties include managing the department’s Web site and Facebook page. Email him at Matthew.Hertzfeld@toledo.oh.gov.

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