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Social media training: Getting firefighters to take it seriously

Combat hurdles to social media training by focusing on the right topics


Many emergency services agencies require training on managing social media for their members. Sometimes this training works well, and sometimes it doesn’t seem to help at all. But why?


Download this Lexipol explainer, “Firefighter Free Speech: What fire departments can and can’t do to restrict free speech,” today to learn key guidelines about firefighter free speech and First Amendment protection.

The headlines are all too common. Two police officers fired for inappropriate Facebook posts. Thirteen officers fired and dozens disciplined after investigation of social media activity.

What was notable about both of these cases is the fact that those involved had all recently completed department-mandated training on the proper use of social media. If these officers just completed training on this subject, then why did they all still behave in ways that cost them their jobs?

Many emergency services agencies require training on managing social media for their members. Sometimes this training works well, and sometimes it doesn’t seem to help at all. But why?

Social media training may be ineffective for three general reasons:

  1. The content is incomplete or wrongly focused.
  2. The delivery undermines the message.
  3. Organizational commitment does not back the training intention.

We’ll explore these reasons in the context of the topics to cover in social media training.

Social media training topics to cover

Developing content for social media training is more than just telling department members that they shouldn’t post inappropriate material online. Comprehensive training on this topic will include discussion of several subjects, including:

  • Legal and First Amendment considerations
  • Departmental policy mandates
  • The effect of social media at both the macro and micro levels
  • Discussion of real-world situations involving social media and the emergency services

Effective social media training will detail the department’s policy and address that policy in the context of First Amendment protections and legal precedents. Some people think that their First Amendment right to freedom of expression is unlimited, whether on or off the job. This has never been accurate. Free expression may be limited even when someone is not officially representing their employer. This is especially true for those who are in positions of trust, such as emergency responders.

Good training goes well beyond just telling people what to do. It should also explore why policies and laws are in place, and what outcomes may occur when those policies are violated. For example, with the Philadelphia police officers, there is a concern that expressions of bias in social media posts may affect the ability of the city to prosecute cases initiated by those officers under some circumstances.

On a more global scale, the loss of community trust as a result of inappropriate use of social media by individuals affects everyone in the organization, not just one person behaving badly.

Social media training content is greatly enhanced through the use of recent examples and case studies. A good facilitator will present these examples in a way that motivates discussion and raises different points of view, toward the goal of reaching consensus for what appropriate, professional behavior looks like. This goes back to the second reason listed why social media training may fail to achieve its purpose: the delivery undermines the message.

Good facilitation is key to the success of these kinds of training sessions. Trainers should be well versed in all aspects of the topic, including legal concerns, local policy mandates, and organizational history regarding social media. They should also be up to date on all technical aspects of social media.

It should go without saying that a facilitator should also be very familiar with the mission and culture of the organization they are working with. A corporate trainer might be an expert on social media, but if that person is clueless about how the fire service operates, the training will have limited value.

As noted, the third reason that social media training may fail is a lack of genuine organizational commitment to the task. Some department leaders may not understand or accept why social media training is even important, so they just want to “check the box” that such training is done. This type of approach may result in superficial or hastily developed classes and may also discourage department leaders from investing much in time or resources toward the training. An online-only class might be one result of this approach.

In some cases, department leaders may be part of the problem with misuse of social media. They may go through the motions of providing training on social media, but then violate those same standards in their own daily conduct. This “do as I say, not as I do” approach is worse than just ineffective. It creates cognitive dissonance and confusion for those who are looking for role models and leaders when dealing with a difficult topic.

Social media should represent the department at its best

Ultimately, social media is an enormously valuable tool for individuals and the organizations they serve. We live in a world where most people get their information about nearly everything through electronic sources. Social media is how people feel connected. An emergency services agency that makes the commitment to using social media to interact with its service community is one that will be providing the best service possible.

The social media presence of any fire department should be a representation of the organization at its best. Individual members must understand the role they play in achieving this goal, and good training on the topic is the logical place to start.

Take your department in the direction you want. Get expert advice on how to effectively lead your fire department. 20-year veteran Linda Willing writes “Leading the Team,” a FireRescue1 column about fire department leadership.