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Firefighters can be legally fired for Facebook posts

Negative Facebook comments about protestors may have been wrong, but were their terminations right?

By David Givot

As firefighter, EMT or paramedic, what you post online, you post for everyone and forever. You can't take it back, and my legal objections to your wrongful termination might not be enough to help you get your job back.

Don't believe me?

Ask the seven South Carolina paramedics and firefighters who were fired over posts they made about Black Lives Matter protesters following a July 10, 2016 demonstration.

I can see three distinct points of view from which to view their terminations.

1. No harm, no foul

The first is from the point of view of first responders who believe protesters don't seem to have articulated what exactly they want other than sweeping and dramatic societal change.

This is an understandable perspective for anyone who's had to work demonstrations that have devolved into destruction of property and threat of violence to both the community and the providers themselves.

Facebook and other social media outlets are a convenient and peaceful way to vent. Nobody gets physically hurt and frustrated providers are not silenced — no harm, no foul.

2. The higher standard

From the second vantage point, like it or not, firefighters are held to a higher standard. You can read my earlier discussion about why that higher standard exists.

Among the countless elements of that higher standard is maintaining, not only the perception, but the reality of objective, unbiased care for all in need.

Firefighters and EMS providers are perhaps the most human of humans, but they, like no other humans, cannot allow their objectivity to be clouded by political, social, religious or other beliefs.

The public trust is the best currency they have to accomplish what is expected; it is a currency they cannot afford to gamble away.

Surely, openly and unabashedly describing humans as speed bumps or targets for water cannons severely undermines the public trust in individual providers and thus undermining all of EMS.

EMS providers are expected to rise above emotional; to be better than that. Facebook and other social media outlets are dangerous and harmful ways to vent. The entire industry gets hurt and firefighters become targets. Plenty of harm, plenty of foul.

3. Whisky, Tango, Foxtrot

The third vantage point is the Whisky-Tango-Foxtrot perspective. What were they thinking? What did they honestly think was going to happen?

Social media has made an infinite world entirely finite, if not altogether tiny. In the U.S. there are more registered Facebook users than there are people. How can you expect anything you post not to be seen by the wrong people?

Worse yet, EMS providers are subject to litigation for any of a million reasons and have to expect that everything and anything they post to a social network can be captured and blown up on a giant screen in a courtroom for the world to see.

Those pictures of you beer-bonging at the river would make great art for a plaintiff's attorney seeking to damage your credibility — for any reason.

Those posts where you describe protesters as speed bumps and threaten to run them over will be manna from heaven to a plaintiff's attorney seeking a zillion-dollar settlement for a civil rights violation against your agency, city or county.

A plaintiff's attorney will easily show your testimony is not credible, based on the culture of racism and intolerance demonstrated by your posts. It does not have to be true, it only has to look true.

I get it. Firefighters and EMS providers are human; we feel things. But we don't get to vent them publicly. Not anymore. We just don't, and that's the way it is.

As to the firings … I object

I am a lawyer. I am quite sure that it was the lawyers who consulted with the agency leaders and recommended termination of these employees to save face and heal whatever wounds may or may not have been opened. This is damage control.

I object to employees being played like pawns and treated like fungible chattel. I invite the agency leaders and their lawyers to take a deep breath and look at the big picture.

These terminated first responders are frustrated human beings. They are called to the frontlines of health care and homeland security in ways nobody else in the world is. Firefighters place themselves directly in the line of fire, literally and figuratively, for imperfect strangers.

Their Facebook posts were ill-conceived, inappropriate and irresponsible.

But come on, did anyone think they were serious about harming or killing a protestor? Do their comments undo decades of service and commitment to fire and EMS? Doesn't the agency owe some loyalty and empathy to the providers?

Unfortunately, lawyers have likely turned doing what's right into doing what's expedient. Firefighters deserve better from their agency leaders.

What if, instead of firing these guys, they were retained and debriefed? What if their leaders created opportunities to understand what is frustrating their field personnel and worked to manage those frustrations?

What if we could take good people and help them become better? Isn’t that what fire and EMS should be doing for its own?

Lastly, this is the time to look at your department and measure the pressure. Maybe it's time to think about how you can prevent this type of situation from occurring at all. 

About the author

David Givot, Esq., graduated from the UCLA Center for Prehospital Care (formerly DFH) in June 1989 and spent most of the next decade working as a Paramedic responding to 911 in Glendale, CA, with the (then BLS only) fire department. By the end of 1998, he was traveling around the country working with distressed EMS agencies teaching improved field provider performance through better communication and leadership practices. David then moved into the position of director of operations for the largest ambulance provider in the Maryland. Now, back in Los Angeles, he has earned his law degree and is a practicing Defense Attorney still looking to the future of EMS. In addition to defending EMS Providers, both on the job and off, he has created TheLegalGuardian.com as a vital step toward improving the state of EMS through information and education designed to protect EMS professionals - and agencies - nationwide. David is a member of the EMS1 Editorial Advisory Board. David can be contacted via e-mail at david.givot@ems1.com.

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