Perform a social media size-up before every post
Ask yourself a series of questions to determine if that comment or photo is worth risking your career
While there have already been so many warnings, we continue to see firefighters getting jammed up for posting pictures and/or their opinions on social media. I figure since your life is void of anyone else's opinions on the internet, I would give you mine. You're welcome.
One of my intro pieces in the upcoming book “Pass It On 3: Making Good Progress” is entitled “The Best Advice I Never Got.” It covers a few things that I may have done differently, plus some advice I wish I had been given or paid attention to at the time. And while we didn't have social media, camera phones, etc., when I was a young firefighter, if we did, I am pretty sure I would have done something I shouldn't have, so maybe I can help you here. After all, I’m sure there are countless firefighters out there who have found themselves in a social media mess and wished someone had warned them about the dangers, both obvious and no-so-crystal clear.
As a general rule, stay OFF social media in any way that can connect you to your role as a firefighter. You don't have to, but it's a good idea. I mean, I have never heard anyone say, “If it weren't for that social media post, I wouldn’t have been the successful firefighter I am today,” whereas we’ve probably all heard, “I wish I hadn't posted that crap!” Or maybe it’s a case of delete, delete, delete, but too late, someone already took a screenshot of it. Damn!
Today, there are more opportunities than ever to offer our opinion – without showing our faces – to whomever is listening. The problem is, I'm not sure anyone wants your/mine/our opinions. Is your firehouse or department “annoying you”? Sure, that’s normal. But post about it? Are you that naïve?
I would never criticize my department, its members or officers, directly or indirectly, on social media or outside my department. Ever. If I have a problem at my department, I take it to whoever I need to at my department. Face to face. Conversations. Talk to whoever. Stuff like that. But post on social media about “how things should be” or “what I think should be done better?” Don't be stupid.
Sure, there may be one or two who you are able to convince of your opinion, but in most cases, all you are doing is adding fuel to a fire, qualified or not. And after offering your opinion, did it matter? Did it help? Do you feel better, bubbe? So then, after all that, what was the point? Did you show them? Who is “them” anyway?
Beware, even seemingly harmless posts can cause waves
You’re probably thinking, “Ya, ya, I’ve heard this before,” and can recall some recent firestorms, like the crew in Detroit that posed in front of a burning structure. But what you may not realize is that even seemingly innocuous posts can cause problems and jam you up and piss off the wrong people.
For example, I saw a Twitter post last week that I got a kick out of – but I also got nervous for the person who posted it. It was a #TBT (Throwback Thursday) post showing a very young firefighter in his brand new gear on his first day on the fire department followed by the words, “Old school back in 2016.” And next to it was a current picture where this kid has MAYBE one less pimple on his face and still no facial hair – and he shared his opinions on firefighting operations.
Old school back in 2016?! (That’s the yelling in my head.)
My observation was that this young firefighter’s OLD school was probably the same SCHOOL he is in now. Sure, a whole lot can happen in under four years – and a whole lot CANNOT happen in those same years. But to label it old school? Stop.
There's a great phrase my boss uses at the fire department – “Stay in your lane” – which essentially means to focus on your role, responsibility and do only what you are qualified to do. The same goes for speaking out and offering opinions on social media. Sure, you can do or say what you want, but don't go whining when you suddenly start thinking, "I wish I hadn't posted that.” When you have a few years on any job, you are limited on what you can or should speak on, so THINK! Think hard. OK, good. Now don't post.
Was the young firefighter joking? Maybe, but remember, when you post anything on social media, it is subject to the interpretation of the reader. It doesn't matter what you meant it to mean; the reader decides the message. So, be real careful on what you post so it isn't misinterpreted, or better yet, don't post anything that could get you heat with the fire department or in a battle with your peers.
Applying the Four-Way Test to social media
Look, at the end of the day, you can post whatever you want, but then understand that you own the consequences. And just because you post your opinion and then 10 minutes later, your friends call (or probably text) telling you to delete that crap, and maybe you come to your senses, it may be too late. Naturally, and especially if what you posted is particularly stupid (not to you, of course), odds are it was screenshoted and now it is no longer under your control. Trust me. A good friend of mine posted his comments about a local politician, and that one posting – a post that was removed a few minutes later – has continued to haunt him since.
So how do you decide what’s OK to post?
Rotary International is a service-based organization. I was a very active member for many years and was a 100%-er, as I never missed meetings, regardless of where I was. Rotary Clubs are guided by something called the “Four-Way Test,” and perhaps this will help you decide what, where and when you post on social media.
The Rotary Four-Way Test is a nonpartisan and nonsectarian ethical guide for their members to use for their personal and professional relationships. Related to the things we think, say or do, there are four questions:
- Is it the TRUTH?
- Is it FAIR to all concerned?
- Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS?
- Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?
Aside from the fact that using that guide is a pretty good way to lead out lives, let’s apply these four questions to the way we decide to post on social media:
- Is it the TRUTH or am I just stirring the pot? If it is the truth, is this the best way to share the message? Why do you have to share the message on social media?
- Is it FAIR to all concerned? If it is, what am I accomplishing by posting this or offering my opinion?
- Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS, or am I intentionally posting this because I can't stand that SOB?
- Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned, or will it just make me look better to others?
In addition to this, consider the following when you decide to offer your opinion as a fire service member, post that picture or share whatever it is:
- What is your department policy and am I putting my career or membership at risk?
- If you are an officer, is the posting worth putting your rank, career and pension at risk?
- If you are an officer and see one of your subordinates post something that will get them jammed up, what are you going to do? Again, what is the department policy?
- It's election season, and in my time here on earth I haven't seen people angrier over politics. Are you sure posting your opinion will do anything other than make you feel good, temporarily?
Rest assured, whoever you are criticizing will absolutely never forget. And that will be a payback you will regret – and may not even know it when you get that payback.
So with all this in mind, let’s go back to my young friend “Old School” and see how this works out on the above:
- His unqualified comments put his career at risk.
- What he commented on wasn't factual, and it offered nothing but a stirred pot.
Social media size-up
I started as a firefighter in 1973 and continue on today – and I absolutely love it. I am “ate up” with it and have no plans to stop until I start getting in the way and have nothing to offer to improve the incident (or a firefighter or officer).
With those years comes experiences along with training, and since day one, the “files” above my shoulders and in my heart have taken in a lot of information. I have seen a lot and have experienced a lot, and I have spent a better part of my career investigating and writing about bad stuff.
At nearly 65, my files still aren’t full, as I learn something every day – seriously, either personally or from someone else. Every single day I learn, and most often from firefighters and chiefs younger than me. Do the math.
And yes, I post stuff on social media. My Twitter posts are almost always firefighter survival-related and, on occasion, something I think is funny. My Instagram is a mix of some fire stuff and some family stuff, most about my six beautiful grandbabies. However, before I post what I think is funny, I do a “social media size-up.”
As fire officers and firefighters, we arrive at a situation and we size it up to determine how we are going to handle it. Our goal is to help and take necessary risks when those risks may matter. You wouldn’t close your eyes and go running into a working fire without your gear and at least somewhat of an understanding as to what the conditions are inside. And even then, you are willing to take the risk in where appropriate.
As social media firefighters, consider a similar size-up. In other words, don't go running into a situation blindly without considering the value of the risk you are about to take.
As a firefighter or an officer, there are times where you have little time and must take a significant necessary risk. That is not the case when you have that “urgent need” to post something you may regret. I promise you.
You didn't take an oath related to posting career- or reputation-ending comments on social media, so don't lose you position, membership or career over it. Plenty have and plenty regret it.
Editor's Note: Do you have a social media story to share? Email email@example.com.