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Social Media and the Fire Department

Given our love of new tools, the fire and emergency service community's overall reluctance to explore the potential of social media at first seems puzzling. As a profession, we are very tradition bound — especially baby-boomers — and changing to a new communications method can be frightening. But social media is here to stay. Many corporations and other professions are already using it effectively. For those who are not, the time has come to take a serious look at this communications tool and our ability to manage it. 

While some departments – Charlotte, North Carolina, and Los Angeles, California, are two noteworthy examples – have aggressively and enthusiastically experimented with social media, others in the fire community view this new media with a mixture of trepidation and suspicion and confusion. Even now, when it should be clear that a communications revolution has occurred, many still dismiss social media as one or more of the following:  

  • A passing fad
  • Something for kids – even though you probably use some sort of social media yourself
  • Too time consuming
  • A forum for complaints and malcontents
  • A human resources nightmare 

There are good reasons for approaching social media with the same caution you use when considering new fire equipment; however, it has been concluded that the reasons listed above are unfounded. Here's why: 

  • Social media isn't a fad, any more than the telephone or the Internet were at their inception. Like phone styles, the vehicles for social media will come and go, but the revolution to interactive communication is here to stay. We can't avoid it. With an open mind, we must explore it and decide if it's right for our department now or in the future. 
  • Social media can be silly; so can TV, books, and magazines. But there are legitimate uses for social media, and serious consequences are attached to its use. 
  • Yes, social media takes time, and failure to factor in the cost of staffing social media maintenance and development is a mistake many government agencies continue to make. But answering the phone and responding to emails takes time too, yet we do it because our customers demand it. If our customers demand to communicate interactively with us, we will have to find the means to do that. 
  • Fear of criticism should not be the driving factor in deciding to use new communication tools. 

We manage human resources issues related to technology every day. The use of telephones, television, instant messaging, email, and the Internet itself has been addressed and will continue to be managed as each change. Fire departments have every right to set rules about the use of these tools, and, indeed, must exercise that right. 

Opportunities Missed? 

And yet, while we know the potential benefits, many of us remain reluctant and remain in the exploratory phases of social media usage. With everything else on our plates, we need to find time to stay connected to our community in a way that they use daily, for if we do not, they will get their information from other sources. 
The question for us now is: Where do we go from here?  Perhaps we can pat ourselves on the back for avoiding the problems faced by agencies that jumped into the social media fray without really thinking about the purpose or the ramifications. Or perhaps we are missing opportunities to use these new tools – opportunities to use these tools to provide better customer service and capitalize on the benefits of instant information. 
We may not be ready to go the whole nine yards as some agencies such as the pioneering Environmental Protection Agency, Transportation Security Administration, and Charlotte (NC) Fire Department have done. But even agencies in governments that have taken a conservative approach recognize that it's time to ask how social media might work for us. 
One place to start is your own public information office. Chances are, your PIO already has attended workshops, seminars, and professional meetings on this topic. He or she probably has talked with colleagues about how they're using social media in public and private communications. PIOs are engaged with this issue. Charge them with recommending three uses for social media in your agency and with developing specifics about staffing and maintenance. Let them research best practices to avoid the mistakes of the early adopters. This will allow them to take ownership of this project, helping it to be successful. 
Consider tapping a few of your best and brightest young employees, people who have grown up with new media, to work with your public information staff on a social media committee. As with any initiative, support from chief officers, public administrators, and elected leaders is critical. Getting a few members, who embrace social media and want to help push your department forward in its use, will pay dividends as long as the ground rules are firmly set. State what you want social media to accomplish, provide some oversight with content, and let them take your department into the future. You will find that the community will embrace your efforts and appreciate the instant information pertaining to what you are doing with the financial support they are providing your department. 

Ideas Worth Exploring 

Here are some ideas that are worth exploring: 

  • Use Twitter to communicate before, during, and after emergent situations. More and more people rely on wireless devices for information. An endless stream of tweets can be annoying. Tweeting and encouraging followers to re-tweet, information about emergency situations, and vital practical issues make sense. 
  • In California, Twitter has been a critical link between responders and citizens affected by recent, very destructive wildfires. The American Red Cross uses Twitter during disasters. GovTwit.com, a website that tracks public sector Twitter users, reports that its master list of user names affiliated with the state, local, and federal government agencies has multiplied tenfold over the last few years. 
  • Blogs. A blog with a distant corporate voice that doesn't allow comments and consists of press releases and fluff is useless. But a blog written by a trusted and knowledgeable person (or persons) about issues relevant to citizens has the potential to engage people about fire and life safety issues and to allow departments to promote positive activities in a friendly, conversational way. 
  • The Transportation Security Administration's blog (http://www.tsa.gov/blog/) is considered one of the best among communications practitioners. There is no fluff here. The TSA's team of bloggers tackle rumors and misconceptions and do not shy away from addressing problems and criticisms. TSA accepts comments and gets lots of them. It is recognized as one of the most credible public social media offerings. 
  • YouTube. Your agency website and local cable program may provide all the reach you need for most video materials. But for others — recruitment and training, for example — you may want to upload a staff-produced video to YouTube to reach a wider audience. Work with your IT department to find out what your jurisdiction's policies are and what technology infrastructure you need.
  • Focused Facebook usage. Facebook has evolved primarily as a social tool. It can be a lively place for specific audiences with a common interest to share ideas and current information. Use this to pass along safety messages as well as weather and man-made events that affect the citizens' daily lives, and they will be very appreciative. 

Realize that you don't have to, and shouldn't, use a tool just because someone else is using it. Many of the departmental Facebook pages out there are few more than useless, static vehicles for press releases, with little or no interactivity social media users expect. 

We understand the squeamishness about comments on a generic departmental page; your audience's scope is so broad that you risk becoming a landing spot for non-constructive criticism and irrelevancy. But if you take the "social" out of social media, then what is the point? If we're only going to use social media as a platform for news releases, then perhaps it's unwise to devote the resources to them when we can get the same function out of a well-marketed government webpage. 

Developing a Strategy 

The bottom line is that the effective use of social media, as it continues to grow and expand into new mediums, means developing a solid strategy and not merely jumping off the proverbial cliff because everyone else is doing it. 
That strategy must involve: 

  • A professional website. Amid all the chatter about social media, websites have been overlooked. But departmental websites remain the destination for social media users, as well as mainstream media readers and viewers. Don't venture into social media until a system is in place to keep your website well-designed, easy to read, and current. 
  • An understanding of the various online tools. Online communications are evolving rapidly. It takes time and energy to keep up with the trends and best practices and to understand which tools are best for different purposes. Assign someone, your PIO, or an energetic member or team in your department who has a real passion for the positive use of social media, to begin an ongoing study of social media and how other agencies are using it. 
  • A business plan.  Figure out precisely what you want to accomplish with social media and what audience you're trying to reach. Define your online identity. Map out a plan for which personnel will have access to social media tools and how much time and resources they will need to manage your social media presence.  

Make sure your policies regarding social media content are consistent with your policies regarding traditional content such as photos, video, and patient information. If you wouldn't send a newspaper a photo or video depicting a patient, you shouldn't post it on Facebook or YouTube. Your obligation to protect victims does not change just because of the communications vehicle changes. Understand and follow all HIPAA rules, and this will keep you out of any possible legal issues that will arise with the misuse of social media in this arena. 
Communicate your new social media policy clearly to your entire department so that every member understands that only authorized personnel may Tweet, blog, or post text or photos under the department's auspices and that they may be liable personally for any unauthorized information they disseminate on their own. Update your public information SOPs, to include social media, regularly as this medium is changing daily. 
Draft a policy to be posted on your website for citizens who use your social media tools to know what to expect in terms of comments, frequency of postings, and other terms of engagement. Consult your legal department to make sure you are on firm ground. This also applies to any departmental SOP on social media. The First Amendment is a far-reaching document, but you do have some rights, as a department, but they must be legally vetted before they are published and enforced. 
No one has all the answers on this emerging topic. Work with those departments that have gone through this process to learn from their errors along the way. You do not have to reinvent the wheel; just adapt what you have found in your research to your department and how you want to use social media. This will help you move into or expand your presence in this communications forum and help you better connect to your community and the fire service in general. 


Chief Patrick Kelly started his career in 1974 in Baltimore County, Maryland, and served as fire chief in New York, Florida, Arizona and Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Chief Kelly is a Professor at Columbia Southern University in the Fire Science Program and is the past-chairman of the IAFC’s EFO Section. Kelly is a graduate of the EFO program, holds a CFO designation, and is a graduate of Loyola University with an MBA.

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