Don't get fired for Facebook: 10 ways to use social media safely

How to make sure your online activities do not interfere with your job as a firefighter or EMS provider

By Steve Wirth and Doug Wolfberg
Page, Wolfberg & Wirth LLC

We've seen several cases in recent months where firefighters and EMS providers have gotten in hot water and even lost their jobs for posting what their employer believed were inappropriate images, videos, or comments. For instance, take a look at SC firefighter-medic fired over Facebook video post or FDNY medic likely to lose job for joking about patient

Internet access to global electronic information resources and to social networking media has revolutionized information sharing. These networking capabilities are changing the way we work and communicate with each other.

But with this new societal free flow of "information sharing" comes legitimate patient privacy and business concerns for the public safety employer. Departments and agencies — both public and private alike — have a legitimate business interest to ensure that social networking is used in a way that does not violate patient confidentiality, harm the organization's reputation and business interests, or interfere with the work of others.

How can you make sure that your online activities do not interfere with your job or work activities at your department or agency? The main thing is to always think about how others in your agency or the public would perceive your comment before you post it.

In other words, think before you hit the "enter" key. One of the problems with "reacting" to an event or someone else's post is that your own reaction will likely reflect your emotions at the time. Ideally, you should craft a thoughtful response after some reflection. "Reacting" rather than "responding" may cause you to post something you may regret later.

Here are 10 helpful principles that can help you avoid any issues with your department or agency about what you post on Facebook or other social networking media. If followed, these principles can help keep your face on the company roster:

1. Don't post inappropriate pictures or images
It may go without saying, but your employer, patients or public officials do not want to see pictures of you in an intoxicated state or doing really stupid things. Beyond the pictures you would not want your parents or family members to see, seemingly innocent pictures of your personal life may not help to support the image you want to present in your professional life as a firefighter or EMS provider.

Certainly you should not post pictures of patients or post comments about them. Nor should you post images of accident scenes or company equipment, documents, or personnel without the permission of the company. This includes images taken around the station of equipment and other staff members during downtime while on duty. (Would you like a Facebook "friend" posting a picture of you at work sleeping on the couch with your mouth wide open without your permission?)

2. Don't complain about your job, supervisors, or co-workers in a public forum
Any negative comments about your EMS agency or co-workers (even if not specifically named) should generally not be posted. These comments reflect poorly on you, the organization, and the persons that you criticize. Examples of inappropriate postings may range from a comment about the competency of your supervisor, to a comment about how your coworker always shows up late and you were stuck staying over.

Photo Jamie Thompson
Steve Wirth talks to an audience about social networking issues during a session at EMS Today last year.
We may complain about work and co-workers to a friend or family member now and then, but doing so in a public forum where it can be easily read by others who may not be so close to you is not a wise move. Negative and derogatory comments can also lead to claims of defamation and slander.

3. Don't post inappropriate "statuses"
Avoid any status updates that discuss patient care situations, your department, or other staff members, or that may implicate unprofessional conduct. You should avoid statuses like "I plan to call in sick tomorrow so I can go to the beach," or "I'm tired of transporting annoying old people from nursing homes," or "Sarah is watching the championship soccer game online at her desk". Statuses that imply you or others are unreliable, dishonest, deceitful, or unprofessional may jeopardize your employment status.

4. Be particular about your "friends" and associations
You can't control what your friends post to your profile (although you can remove it once you see it), nor what they post to their own profiles or to those of mutual friends. But you can control if they are your friend in the first place, or delete their postings from your page. For example, pictures your friend has tagged you in where he is falling down drunk, and you look intoxicated as well reflect poorly on you, even if you are not the direct focus of the image. You are who your friends are! Take a look at everything connected to your profile — including your friends list — and keep an eye out for anything you wouldn't want to show your parents or others. If a "friend" uses profanity or posts improper images, you might want to think about removing that person from your "friends" list.

5. Check your privacy and security settings and know their rules
Privacy and security settings on social networking sites can be confusing and hard to deal with. It is now possible to customize lists of friends and decide what each list can and cannot see. But many people do not fully understand these settings, or don't bother to check access levels. If you are going to use Facebook professionally, and even if you aren't, make sure you take the time to go through your privacy options.

At the very least, your profile should be set so that people who are not your friend cannot see any of your pictures or profile information. You should also become familiar with all privacy settings as well as the "terms and use" and "privacy policies" of the social networking application that you are using.

6. Consider establishing a "professional" profile page
The best advice is to lock down your personal profile so that only friends you approve can see anything on that profile. Another practical suggestion is to consider creating a second, public profile purely for professional use. This profile functions like an online resume, and should only contain information you'd be comfortable telling your employer face to face. 

Having a social networking profile is a good thing — it presents you as technologically and professionally savvy. Just make sure your profile is helping to present your best side — not the side that got drunk at your friend's party last week.

7. Don't use social networking while engaged in patient care or work activities
Access to social networking sites on your personal device should only occur in absolute down time as you would use a personal cell phone when on duty (if this is permitted by your agency). It is inappropriate to post statuses or to view social networking profiles while with a patient or engaged in company work activity.

An improper activity would be a status posting made from the back of an ambulance with a patient onboard such as: "Bored, Transporting another GOMER from the Nursing Home to ABC Hospital." This would be unacceptable both because of the context (where and when it was made) and the content of the message (disrespectful comment about a patient).

8. Don't misrepresent yourself or others
You should be careful that what you post about your training and education is accurate and consistent with information you have given to your employer. Your department or agency has the right to check out statements you may make from a variety of sources, including your social networking profile.

For example, if you call in sick and later that day you post a status that says "Off to the beach for the day to go surfing" and the department is made aware of it, you can expect them to investigate this further and initiate corrective action where appropriate.

Or if you claim on your job application that you have a college degree but your online profile states that you did not yet obtain a degree and are still going to school, your employer may question the accuracy of the information you supplied them.

9. Be who you are
Some posters and bloggers work anonymously, using false screen names. That is usually not a good idea. Transparency and honesty are the best policies to follow. Hiding behind a "handle" name may embolden you to post things you would not ordinarily post (and against your better judgment!).

Nothing gains you more notice in the online social media environment than honesty — or dishonesty. What you post may be forwarded and viewed by many, so consider the content carefully. If you blog, consider using a "disclaimer" that states your postings are your own personal opinions and do not represent the opinion or position of your employer(s) or EMS agencies you work with.

10. Respect copyright and fair use laws
For your employer's protection as well as your own, it is critical that you respect laws governing copyright and fair use of copyrighted material owned by others, including your department or agency's copyrights, logos or images.

You should never quote more than short excerpts of someone else's work. And it is a good general practice to provide a "link" to the original source of your posting.


Steve Wirth and Doug Wolfberg are founding partners of Page, Wolfberg & Wirth, LLC, The National EMS Industry Law Firm™. PWW represents ambulance services and fire departments in a wide range of issues, including labor and employment law. Doug and Steve have years of experience as EMS field providers and system managers. They can be reached at or at 717-691-0100.


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