The Professional Volunteer Fire Department, Part 14–Social Media

By Thomas A. Merrill

What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. And on Facebook. And Twitter. And anywhere else people decided to post their photos and comments for the world to see. Of course, what people post is their own personal business. However, the professional volunteer firefighter has a duty and obligation to ensure his posts do not negatively impact the image and reputation of his department or our great fire service. 

Used correctly, social media can be a great tool and can contribute greatly to a department’s professional reputation. But, if used inappropriately, a firefighter and a department’s reputation can be destroyed very quickly, and that damage can be hard to repair.  

The professional volunteer fire department should develop and implement a stringent social media policy outlining what is acceptable and what is unacceptable. It should also identify who is authorized to make postings on behalf of the department. Department leaders should also seek legal guidelines regarding what can be posted. In addition, all firefighters, from the newest probie to the most senior member, need to be educated and made aware of the immediate impact (good and bad) social media postings can have on a firefighter and a fire department. They need to understand that as firefighters, they are held to a higher standard of conduct and whatever they choose to post, they are posting as a firefighter and as a member of their department. 

Firefighters should even be careful and use discretion when creating a post as a private citizen on their own personal social media accounts. Chances are, they have something on their site identifying themselves as a firefighter. Images such as a proud pose in that full dress uniform, an action shot at a fire call, or comments about a recent department function all certainly clearly identify them. It simply might just be the fact that people and acquaintances know they are firefighters. Our members need to understand this and, as firefighters, they should act accordingly and uphold the stalwart and honorable reputation we enjoy.   

Remember, once something is posted, it is out there forever, and it is hard to retract. The speed at which the information spreads across cyberland is impressive. I recently experienced firsthand the immediate impact social media can have. I have four daughters, and they strive to help me understand the latest and greatest smartphone apps and methods for posting and sharing information.

One day, I accidentally broke a glass in my kitchen. I have a little bit of a temper, and I was pretty upset with myself. As I proceeded to clean up the mess, I was letting everybody within ear shot know how mad I was. Well, a minute or two later, I received a phone call from my sister asking if I needed any help. How in the world, I wondered, did my sister know what was going on? I soon found out: my 15-year-old daughter had secretly recorded me and quickly posted it for the world to see. That’s how quick information—good or bad, happy or sad, right or wrong—spreads today, and we need to be aware of it.

Great firefighting careers have been ruined by poor decisions when it comes to social media, and the poor decisions have led to the demotion and firing of more than one firefighter over the past few years. Although volunteer firefighters might not be fired, they certainly can be reprimanded and, in some cases, dismissed if their departments deem it justified. Even if you don’t care about yourself or your department, at least have consideration for your fellow firefighters and for our great fire service by sharing appropriate information in the appropriate manner. The professional firefighter must avoid racist, sexist, vulgar, and mean-spirited opinions and rants.

Some think the answer is simply to ban any use of social media within their departments. I couldn’t disagree more; social media is here to stay. Embraced correctly, it can not only reinforce a department’s professional reputation, but it can also be used to convey important information during emergencies and used to keep citizens informed and up-to-date.

Use social media to showcase your department’s activities. Have your social media team post photos of your firefighters training and operating at emergency scenes. Show off how involved and engaged the department is within the local community by highlighting various community events, standbys, and other details the department attends. Deliver fire safety messages and announce upcoming fire department events and use it to recruit new members. I also think it’s a great idea to share members own personal success stories such as a job promotion or school achievements with the junior members. Doing so promotes good morale and helps build house pride. 

Social media is an incredibly powerful tool and can immediately impact a firefighter’s and fire department’s reputation. Embrace it and use it correctly to make a positive impact and help paint the picture of a professional volunteer fire department.  

 

Thomas A. Merrill is a 30-year fire department veteran in the Snyder Fire Department, which is located in Amherst, New York. He served 26 years as a department officer, including 15 years in the chief officer ranks, and recently completed five years as chief of department. He also is a professional fire dispatcher for the town of Amherst fire alarm office. He can be reached at tamerrill63@aol.com.

 

 

 

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