P.2 ~ Social Media: The Rules Are Already on the Books

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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.


“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.


  • 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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