BY JUSTIN SCHORR
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.
THE INTERNET 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.
PERSONAL VS. SHARED NARRATIVE
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.
ACTS DETRIMENTAL TO THE DEPARTMENT
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.
WHEN NOT TO SHARE
When a department decides to break the silence about sharing media, how can you be sure the message is clearly received?
A memo from the chief of department encouraging members to focus on personal narrative will likely fall on confused ears. Company officers will be unable to answer questions from members who ask, for example, about being able to share their affiliation, their work status, kids’ pictures taken at the firehouse, and so on. The key to enforcing your new sharing policy is a simple reminder that off-duty conduct, no matter the medium, falls under applicable preexisting policy.
Encourage examples of positive sharing; distribute them in a memo form clearly worded as appropriate. These include the following:
- Mention of employment status on sharing sites should be limited to rank and department. Appropriate: Firefighter John/Jane Doe, Anytown Fire Department. All electronic content, whether or not the member is associated with the department on the particular site, shall conform to off-duty decorum policies (cite policy). This policy clarifies to the member that both online and offline use of his association with the department can and will be monitored.
- Display of approved department insignia including apparel, vehicles, and buildings is subject to review by the chief of department for appropriateness (cite policy). Controlling the use of the department name, logo, and associated images allows the department to ensure they are only used for approved projects or purposes. This should in no way discourage firefighters from sharing pictures of their units, stations, and friends when appropriate but should instead remind members that policies enforcing inappropriate use both in print and electronic media can and will be enforced.
- Station officers should be made aware of images used on “check in” sites by their members and monitor them for appropriateness. Members “checking in” to work show dedication to the department and their desire to share with friends and family the reason they may not be answering their phone today. It can also help build community as the surrounding businesses will be reminded of the fire station nearby as they monitor their customer usage of the same sites.
No matter how specific and user-friendly the policies are, there will always be comments and statements that draw negative responses from the department members and the public. The official response, in some cases, may be more detrimental than the offending media.
DON’T FEED THE TROLLS
“Troll” is an Internet term for someone looking for trouble in a comment thread. Trolls often surface on sites that share fireground videos and photos. Although the videos may be intended for training purposes and uploaded by a firefighter, many are captured by the public and uploaded often before overhaul is complete. These videos can include public commentary that directly questions the response, actions, and intent of your fire department. More likely than not, there will be comments criticizing your tactics at the scene-e.g., “Wow, so now I know how not to fight a fire! Lucky no one died!” which can certainly make a chief officer anxious.
Public perception can influence funding and, in volunteer departments, impact membership. Controlling the conversation is more important than just shouting down the trolls. Remember, these trolls want nothing more than to start arguments and comment threads that will eventually lead to someone saying something they shouldn’t, which would then be subject to your decorum policy. Their goal is to start trouble, not engage in a logical discussion regarding tactics.
The best way to stop a troll is to comment officially on the original video and ignore the troll. Adding information such as the units and communities that responded to the incident, the outcome of the incident (as allowed by privacy legislation), or other resources in the community who assisted or could assist in the future changes the conversation from what the troll sees to what you want to share.
If a video of a fire in your district is getting negative comments, try posting something like the following:
“Engines 3 and 6 responded to the 3400 block of Webster Street for a reported fire in a home. All occupants escaped unharmed and were assisted by the Red Cross.” Include here a link to the Red Cross in your area.
As readers view the comments, they are likely to “like” or post positive comments that will bury the negative ones farther down on the page, essentially silencing them without ever responding to them.
But what to do when one of the videos or negative comments comes from a known source from within the department?
Sooner rather than later, one of your members is going to violate decorum policy in one form or another, possibly on electronic media or sharing sites. A challenge emerges when departments approach the employee to remove the offending medium, which could be an image, a video, a comment, or a document posted on a sharing site, a magazine, a newspaper, or other Web site. Remember, anything uploaded can be captured on another machine and reproduced until the original item is removed from the source. This is the reality behind the “everything on the Internet is there forever.” Although it is not an entirely accurate statement, it’s true enough in the case of controversial or newsworthy events.
For example, imagine that one of your chief officers installed a helmet camera and wore it to a large motor vehicle collision where multiple fatalities can be seen and the plan and tactics used at the scene are not within department policy. The chief officer, intending to learn from the video, posts it to a hosting site to share with another chief officer but neglects to make it private or password protected. Although the intent was to share it within the department for training purposes, a third party discovers the video and posts it to a public site. Members should be very clear on the policies of the sites to which they upload and default to hard copies for training purposes. Even if a video is password protected on a video upload site, it can be compromised and shared publicly without the uploader’s permission. Should the chief officer be held accountable for capturing and posting the video and its eventual release to the public? Your policy regarding capturing of patient images would apply here and must be applied as if the officer had himself shared the video.
It will be impossible to remove the video from the public site even if it is removed from the original hosting service. The department must shift to addressing questions that the video creates instead of fighting to have it removed. It is possible that the fight to remove it will draw more viewers than the fight to answer the questions it raises.
It is difficult to abandon personal narrative and embrace shared narrative while participating in a fire department. Departments should directly address employees’ desire to do this by channeling it into approved methods and forms of discussion. Personal habits and off-duty conduct are ongoing challenges chief officers must monitor carefully and enforce equally regardless of the method used to make the infringement.
If a member violates policy in a crowded restaurant and is not reprimanded but is reprimanded when the same violation occurs through electronic sharing media, a dual standard is introduced, and the root cause of the violation, the member’s actions, comments, or conduct, is not directly addressed.
WHAT TO DO TODAY
- Chief officers, company officers, and line firefighters should review their department policies regarding off-duty decorum and cover it regularly in the firehouse at the company level and at regularly scheduled departmentwide training.
- Make new members aware, while still in the training program, of their responsibility to refrain from shared narrative while learning how to be a firefighter. This can be difficult since they are going through possibly the most exciting weeks of their lives. Reinforce the power of personal narrative and living their lives instead of sharing it in the moment. “Live now; share later” should be their motto.
- Establish a positive presence on sharing sites that your employees and the larger external community frequent. Populate the profile with relevant information such as frequently asked questions, important phone numbers, station locations, and other facts about your agency. Find someone within the organization who understands sharing media to update the profiles and proactively respond to comments. Share photos, videos, and other media that enhance your department’s goals.
- Actively follow your agency online by using automatic search tools to look for your agency in news articles, on Web sites, and in blogs to ensure adherence to existing policy. Identify one person, possibly your public information officer, to respond or react as necessary.
- Brand the department using one logo or symbol across all electronic media and sharing sites. Ensure that the persons updating the sites are in constant communication regarding official department policy, stance, and statement.
- Encourage company officers to reinforce to members the importance of personal narrative when on and off duty. They should not discourage sharing; they should instead give examples of positive methods of sharing and act swiftly when inappropriate sharing based on department policy is discovered.
By taking these simple steps, your department will apply a proactive strategy for dealing with the inevitable release of inappropriate content. When a reporter asks if you have a “social media” policy, you can be comfortable in knowing that your policy addresses all manner of conduct and takes into account employees’ desire to share and encourage positive activity in the community.
JUSTIN SCHORR is a second-generation firefighter and paramedic captain in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has experience as an Explorer Scout and as a volunteer and a paid firefighter in rural, suburban, and urban settings. Schorr speaks on a wide range of fire and emergency medical service (EMS) topics and has been active in the online EMS community since 2008.
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