The Boston Fire Department Makes Use of Web Social Media

by Michelle McCourt

The fire service nationally is facing the challenge of reaching out to prospective employees through an effective and efficient means of communication as well as keeping residents informed of important safety information. The Boston (MA) Fire Department (BFD) is leading the way through effective use of existing social networking Web sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

In June 2008, Boston Fire Commissioner Roderick Fraser hired me as human resource manager to organize the department’s recruitment efforts with a goal of improving the diversity of the department and to organize the department’s community outreach programs. “I really wanted to change the way we were recruiting and become more proactive in reaching out to all of our communities and the Boston Public School students with the message that the fire department is a great place to work,” said Commissioner Fraser.

As part of the department’s ongoing recruitment efforts, we began collecting contact information from people interested in becoming firefighters. I quickly began to notice that a majority of people were listing an e-mail address instead of a phone number or a mailing address as their primary contact information. In a study done by Expierence.com, 85 percent of the target age group would rather text than talk and are connected via social media. If the department wanted to improve communication effectiveness in this demographic, we had to find ways to leverage these social networking sites to get the message out.

My only experience with social media had been monitoring my kids; I started with a quick lesson from my
12-year-old daughter. I then attended a workshop and a few online training sessions. When I performed a Facebook search for Boston Fire, there were more than 2,400 pages listed. I then focused on two quick goals. First, how do we establish our site as the official site for the department and differentiate itself from unofficial sites? Second, how do we prevent people from posting inappropriate messages?

These concerns were quickly dismissed and exponentially outweighed by the benefits of maintaining the page. By using the official department logo and keeping the posts professional, the Boston page differentiated itself from the other Facebook pages and had more than 10,000 fans in less than six months. Inappropriate posts were few and far between. A number of staff members were given administrative rights to the department’s Facebook page and were encouraged to view the site periodically throughout the day and delete inappropriate postings. Facebook gives you the option to delete a post and postings that contained foul language or were disrespectful were deleted. After thousands of posts and comments, only two people were permanently blocked from the site, which takes only a click of the mouse.

Facebook has become a venue for the department to post updates on hiring information, testing dates, links to news articles about the department, apparatus purchases, community outreach programs, and photos. It has also provided a venue for answering questions about upcoming milestones in the department’s recruitment process. By using the Web site Youtube, the department has posted a video of the physical abilities test to help prospective candidates prepare.

The power of the social networking sites was illustrated in the annual campaign to remind people to change their batteries in their smoke and carbon monoxide detectors when they changed their clock for daylight savings time. The BFD posted the notice on Facebook and Twitter and had more than 17,000 views, and dozens of fans reposted the notice to their page. The department estimates that the notice was delivered to more than 50,000 people all from a keyboard, with no additional expense to the department. “Reaching this many people in such a short time frame in something we could not have done without the creative use of this media,” commented Commissioner Fraser.

The Boston Fire Department Facebook page has more than 14,000 “fans” and is growing, giving the department an opportunity to communicate all of the positive things it accomplishes that are not carried by the local press. Fund-raising events, volunteer initiatives, and all of the heroic things our firefighters do on a daily basis are shared with the department’s “fans,” and the department is able to solicit feedback from our constituents and respond to concerns.

If you would like more information about how Boston is using social and digital media, please contact me at 617-343-3024 or by e-mail at recruit.bfd@cityofboston.gov.

Michelle McCourt is the human resource manager for the Boston (MA) Fire Department.

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