Fire Service Leadership in a World of Technology and Social Media

By CANDICE McDONALD

The vast majority of the fire service is active in technology, but most members have not considered how to use this technology to increase communication and productivity within their organizations. Technology goes beyond a Facebook “status,” typing a memo, or sending a text or an e-mail. Being an effective leader in this era of technology means harnessing the power technology has on leadership efficiency and implementing effective social media strategies.

Scheduling and Technology Efficiency

Productive committees are a great way to carry out fire department duties, but how do you bring together a team that works different shifts AND has family obligations? Using tools such as Google® and Doodle® for group projects is a sure way to make sure everyone is given the opportunity to participate.

Doodle is a free scheduling tool that you can access from any computer or smartphone. It simplifies the coordination of meetings with multiple people without the back-and-forth battle of availability. Doodle will create a poll and invite team members to vote on an available time to meet. It acts as a free personal assistant that can easily bring members of any committee together with a time and date that work for all.

If you cannot travel to one location for a committee meeting, you can bring team members together by using Google Hangout® or Google Documents®. Google Video Hangout is a free tool that allows up to 10 individuals to connect in one video call. Participants in the video conference can share live with the group their screens, documents, or photos. This tool works on all computers and smartphones and tablets.

Project Collaboration

Google Documents is another way for group collaboration to happen in real time. Multiple members can create, access, and make edits to the same word processing document, electronic spreadsheet, or presentation files as a group. This online collaboration allows for teamwork over the Web from any location. Permission to access and edit documents can be assigned to all team members and the final product shared with just one click. Users of Google Hangout or Documents must have a Gmail® account to use these free tools.

In volunteer and large departments, there can be a disconnect between the chief and the members. Although the chief has faith that appointed line officers can operate the department successfully, the members often need to connect with top leadership. Using technology to hold weekly briefings will not only reassure members that they are valued, but it also gives them an opportunity to deliver critical messages. The chief can use Google Hangout to connect with each firehouse, or he can create a “vlog”-or video blog-which he can upload to a department Web site or share with all members by e-mail. It is a simple video message that you can easily create using a smartphone’s video feature.

Conference Calls Made Free and Easy

Not interested in being a weekly movie star? You can connect with members by phone through the use of tools like FreeConferenceCall©. This free conference call service allows 96 individuals to connect at once and has a free conference recording feature. It can also record the entire call and play it back for those unable to attend.

Repeat Classroom Training Made Easy

Technology can also eliminate the time needed for repeat trainings. You can turn classroom trainings done by PowerPoint® or lecture into professional-looking recorded sessions for all department members to view with a tool such as Camtasia®. Being able to prerecord trainings not only ensures the training is top-notch, but it also means the training can be facilitated without the leader being present. This allows the leader to develop a video library of trainings, which increases time efficiency. Camtasia allows users to import slide presentations, photos, and recorded sound. This software also allows you to customize and edit content and share the video with anyone. The video can be edited and changed as needed to include updated information. Camtasia is free for the first 30 days; after 30 days, there is a charge. Once you have created and exported the videos, you do not need Camtasia to view them.

Fire Prevention, Recruitment, and other Promotional Videos

Another great tool to create videos in is iMovie©. This is your answer to making promotional videos for marketing, recruitment, or displaying fire department achievements. iMovie comes standard with Mac computers and is available through the app store for Apple products. For iPhone© 5c and above users, you can download iMovie for free. This tool comes with themes to guide you and trailers for promotion, or you can create your own film. It is the simplest and most affordable video editing tool for professional-looking outcomes.

Social Media Strategies to Improve Department Relationships

When US Airways Flight 1549 crashed into the Hudson River, it wasn’t a reporter who brought the story to the public’s eye; it was told in real time through the eyes of the average citizen. The smartphone has created an era of citizen journalism. One person now has the ability to have a dialogue with millions of people through social media. This new platform brings another level of interaction between fire departments and the public.

The phrase “social media strategy” is new for many leaders in the fire service. Just as you must strategize for emergency response, you must do the same with social media. Learning the tactical uses of social media is critical. It is important to understand how to use social media to improve department relations and avoid damaging pitfalls.

Three key ingredients to a good social media strategy are policies, branding, and monitoring.

Policies. As employees engage in the trend of social media, it becomes critical to have rules and guidelines. Most departments already have policies in place regarding department members talking to the media; these policies should extend to social media as well. Leaders need to think of social media in the same context as other forms of communication. Online behavior should be moral, ethical, and legal. Implementing formal guidelines as a social media strategy will lead to effective practices.

Branding. Brand reputation can either give new life to an organization or lead it to the grave. Departments are now in a world driven by technology, and they must develop a positive online brand. If a department’s brand is based on loyalty, community service, and dedication, people will be more willing to forgive when a mistake is made.

Ideas to help you develop a positive online brand include the following:

  • Highlighting compliments. Positive customer feedback is useless unless it is shared. Not only does it provide an insight into the level of service that team members should be striving for, but it also sends a positive message to the public. Sharing those compliments on multiple social media platforms is a great way to attract positive attention. When your department is “Googled,” you want positive stories being the top listings.
  • Audience engagement. Engage social media followers by asking questions, sharing useful fire prevention tips, and encouraging the followers to join in the conversation. The most followed sites are the ones that actively engage with their audience. Developing a brand based on relationships is the foundation for positive social media outcomes.
  • Carefully planned content. Post on social media sites often, and avoid debate-provoking content. Make sure all posts are grammatically correct and well-written. Social media posts are a reflection of the department’s intelligence; be sure they are dress-blues worthy. Using free planning tools such as www.hootsuite.com can help manage all social media platforms and improve productivity.

Monitoring. This is the practice of using online tools to manage what is being said on the Internet about an individual or organization. The following three reasons demonstrate the need for monitoring online content:

  • Crisis control. Negative comments or a mistake caught by a bystander’s smartphone shared online can make people think twice about your department’s reputation. The faster you respond to unfavorable messaging, the better chance you have at taking it out of the spotlight. Poor response time can destroy a department’s reputation and allows for team breakdown. Quick response reaffirms strong leadership and that the public’s trust is most important. Make listening to consumer feedback a key component of your response. Offer the opportunity to discuss the problem in an offline forum such as by phone, e-mail, or a face-to-face meeting. Value the customer’s viewpoint by finding out what happened, the impact it had, and how it can be made right. If it was department error, be sure to apologize for the customer’s poor experience.
  • Reputation reality check. We all have that one friend who lacks a filter and isn’t afraid to share the brutal truth. Social media is a lot like that person, and we need to listen. Your online reputation will provide areas for improvement and validate success stories. Take the time to “listen” and see how your department is being perceived. Improving on the little things is prevention for a later reputation management nightmare. Be sure to talk back to those providing online input just as you would if they came to the station with feedback.
  • Social media policies. The need for social media policies was established across industries because there is always that one person who will post damaging things. Monitoring your online reputation management is critical. Make sure members are not posting things that will lead your department to become front page news for the wrong reason. Department leaders need to catch those violating social media policies before the public does.

Free Tools to Get You Started

Now that you understand why you need to monitor social media, here are three great free tools to get you started in managing your fire department’s online reputation:

  • Google Alerts®. Google Alerts will e-mail you the most up-to-date Google results based on your query. You can set the query to alert you when someone mentions your fire department’s name. (www.google.com/alerts)
  • Social Mention©. This is another free tool that provides real-time social media search and analysis. (www.socialmention.com)
  • Twilert©. This tool will monitor what’s being said about your department on Twitter. You can use this to receive e-mails alerting you to department mentions and hashtags across Twitter. (www.twilert.com)

CANDICE McDONALD is a firefighter/emergency medical services officer with the Winona (OH) Fire Department and a security specialist for NASA. She is also co-chair of the Cumberland Valley Volunteer Firemen Association’s Reputation Management Committee; a member of the ResponderSafety.com outreach team; and a member of the National Volunteer Fire Council, where she also served as the appointed Fire Corps state advocate for Ohio among other capacities since 2009. McDonald is a trustee with the International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services, an instructor at Stark State College, and a contributing author to numerous publications. She is pursuing a doctorate of business administration with a specialty in homeland security. She has a master’s degree in organizational leadership, a bachelor’s degree in business administration, and an associate degree in health and human services. For the past 15 years, she has lectured around the country, empowering individuals and organizations.

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