The internet is forever: Firefighters must be smart on social media

First responders can lose their jobs over inappropriate posts in seemingly private groups


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Recently, several public safety-affiliated Facebook groups with tens of thousands of followers, most identifying as first responders, are getting negative media attention for the content of the pages. With group names related to humor or purporting to be “uncensored,” the pages display photos and videos of tragic and gruesome events from the job, along with often sarcastic or judgmental commentary.           

One paramedic described content as including such things as “people committing suicide, literally seeing bodies slamming into the ground, and then people liking and laughing over the posts.”           

Two thoughts occur to me:

No one is ever completely anonymous online, and no matter what kind of safeguards you may put on social media posts, everything online is in the public forum.
No one is ever completely anonymous online, and no matter what kind of safeguards you may put on social media posts, everything online is in the public forum. (Photo/Pixabay)
  • First, seriously?
  • Second, NEVER forget that the internet is forever.           

When dark humor crosses the line

Firefighters engage in dark humor. They always have and they always will. It’s a way of decompressing from stressful calls and building team camaraderie among those who experience difficult events together.

But there have always been limits on this practice, and firefighters have always understood what those limits are – until now, apparently.

Imagine that you go to a party and socialize with friends, and then on the way home you say to your partner, “Did you talk to John’s wife? She’s got to be the most boring person on the planet. And she’s really gotten fat!” This is certainly a type of mean-spirited gossip that many of us engage in from time to time. But no one would ever say to John in the middle of the party, “Your wife is the most boring person I’ve ever met. And really fat, too!” To say such things in a public place violates every social norm we live by. It can also bring severe consequences in the moment.

The internet is a public place, but because there are often no immediate consequences, and because people believe they are commenting with anonymity, the result is often an “anything goes” mentality. But no one is ever completely anonymous online, and no matter what kind of safeguards you may put on social media posts, everything online is in the public forum. You should assume that everything you post online can be seen by anybody indefinitely into the future.

Police officers in Philadelphia recently found this out the hard way. When a group called The Plain View Project started looking into social media posts by officers in that city, they found plenty to be concerned about. Thousands of posts that the site deemed to be inappropriate led to an investigation that resulted in the firing of 13 officers and the discipline of dozens more. Further, the discovery of the social media posts affected the city’s ability to successfully prosecute some cases involving the officers who were fired or disciplined, because defense attorneys claimed that bias influenced the arrests.

To reiterate, emergency responders can never forget that the internet is a public forum. Anything you post there can and probably will be accessed long after you may be gone from this earth. If you don’t want that to happen, then don’t post things that would embarrass you, your family, your friends or your employer. And don’t “like” or favorably comment on things that other people post along these lines.

Managing stress among the crew        

Some people have speculated that these rude and inflammatory social media sites exist because first responders carry a lot of stress from their work, and there are too few resources to otherwise deal with this stress. There is no doubt that there are too few resources to deal with emergency services-related stress, and more must be done to improve access to help in this area. But that alone will not end the practice of trash-talking and making rude jokes on the job.           

Engaging in potentially rude humor, just among your own trusted and inclusive crew in the fire station, is a long tradition in the fire service. It won’t go away, and it can serve a useful function at times. But officers must be responsible to ensure that such talk does not go too far. And there must be a sense of trust among all members that such conversations are episodic and not habitual, and are private among the group. Members must feel empowered to speak up if such talk ever violates personal boundaries.

It comes back to trust

Every single emergency responder must understand their accountability on social media. Several court cases have explicitly held first responders to a higher standard in this regard. Training and honest conversation about this topic are critical to protect not only first responders, but also the people they serve.

If you say something rude at a party, you can apologize and hopefully move on. But there is no moving on from social media. The internet is forever.

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