Managing fire department social media: The education tactic

Hammering home a list of social-media rules will not work as well as managing a discussion on why of those rules are critical

A fire officer is disciplined for posting racially derogatory comments on Facebook. Other firefighters are disciplined for "liking" those posts.

Firefighters are disciplined for making sexually provocative videos at work and posting them to YouTube.

An EMT is fired for posting photos of a patient on social media.

Firefighters are disciplined for making and posting a parody video about their chief depicting him as Hitler. Those firefighters indicate they might sue their department based on First Amendment protections.

It goes on and on. Firefighters and social media have not always been a good combination. The bad outcomes range from discipline and discharge, to embarrassment for individuals and departments, all the way to litigation.

Double-edged sword
Social media can be a positive tool that both individuals and departments can use to improve communication, expand social ties and have fun. But too often, firefighters do not use good judgment when using social media, and the results can have a wide impact.

If a firefighter represents himself as a department member on social media, and then makes racist remarks or reposts offensive material, the department has a legitimate interest in this, as this behavior may undermine the relationship of trust the entire department has with its service community.

Many departments have tried to manage social media through policies and rules. While every department needs to have a good, baseline social media policy, books of rules can only do so much.

The fact is that the speed of technological development in social media is outpacing the ability of organizations to respond to it with specific policies and practices. As soon as they develop a comprehensive policy to deal with one problem, three new technologies appear that have not been specifically addressed.

Far better, in my opinion, is to take an education approach to the challenge of managing social media. It is not enough to tell people what they can and cannot do; those same people need to understand why these policies are in place.

Teaching why
What is the effect when an individual firefighter makes offensive comments about members of the service community on Facebook? What are the repercussions in both the short and long term when firefighters post a video involving hazing?

A case study approach works well for this type of training. Unfortunately, there are all too many examples out there to analyze. Presenting specific fire service incidents involving social media can lead to a focused, engaged discussion.

It is important for anyone facilitating this kind of training to possess a couple key qualities.

First, the instructor should be credible — knowledgeable about fire service culture and also that particular fire department. Facilitators should do just that — stimulate and manage discussion rather than stand-and-deliver the department policy. Anyone leading this type of training should not have personal baggage in the area of social media or professional conduct generally.

For example, consider a discussion that might occur related to a hazing video that involved a gun and a simulated crime. The intention of the video may have been to scare new recruits as a way of initiating them into firehouse culture. Points that might come up as part of the facilitated discussion could include:

  • Would this incident have been okay if they had not filmed it and posted the video, but just kept it in-house? Why or why not?
  • Were there life-safety issues involved? What were they specifically?
  • What was the officer's involvement in the prank, and was this involvement appropriate? Why or why not?
  • What should the officer's role be in these types of incidents?
  • Who, if anyone, should be disciplined as a result of this incident?
  • Was the actual discipline that resulted appropriate and fair?
  • What effect would this event have on community relationships?
  • What other unintended consequences could result from this incident?

When facilitating discussion, it is important to let participants consider the case, argue points of view, and develop their own conclusions. While the discussion should be guided and managed, it is less effective to have the instructor just telling people what they should do and think.

The goal should be to help people learn to make better decisions, not just reiterate a book of rules.

When should this type of training take place? It would certainly help to have every new recruit class include a segment on appropriate use of social media. Another more focused class should be required for all officers.

Good social media policies are necessary, but are only the beginning. With rapid changes in technology, it is impossible to write rules for every contingency.

Instead, encouraging firefighters to really think about the consequences of their actions is a necessary additional step. Good training in this area can make a big difference.

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