Delayed Response: Thoughts on Public Safety from a Frontline Firefighter/Medic
Over the past couple of decades, social media sites have exploded into every aspect of our lives. For many of us, these networks are a way to stay in touch with people we would otherwise never get the chance to. For others, it’s a way for their voice to be heard or to stay on top of current events. Public safety is not immune. Flipping through posts and tweets has become commonplace around the firehouse table. From my view, fire and EMS administrations were quick to shy away from this growing online uncertainty, and probably for good reason.
It wasn’t long after this technology arrived we started hearing horror stories about firefighters, paramedics, and cops getting themselves into trouble with their posts. Seemingly intelligent adults began posting wildly inappropriate pictures or sharing private information about victims that had no business being made public. Departments’ dirty laundry was aired out for the whole world to see by frustrated, disgruntled employees. While most workers in public safety recognized the boundaries of appropriate, there was no shortage of shining examples of what not to do.
Over the same period a big, scary, and grossly misunderstood monster known as HIPAA made its way onto the stage. Administrations, often overly fearful of a variety of repercussions, began to shy away from the use of social media of any kind. Most organizations developed policies to encourage and educate personnel in the safe, appropriate use of social media. A few overreacted, doling out severe punishments to employees that didn’t meet the perceived crimes.
But now we’re a decade into the world of Facebook and Twitter. The younger generation of first responders has grown up learning the "do's and don'ts" of social networking. Administrations have had years to develop smart, responsible policies for the use of social media. While examples of misuse and abuse can still be found, the incidence of first responders performing colossally stupid online stunts seems to shriveling. In fact, I argue it’s even overshadowed by the good that the internet has proven itself capable of.
The fire service has changed dramatically in the past 40 years. Jonny and Roy’s squad was the only vehicle in Station 51 not carrying any SCBA at one point. As recently as the 90’s, some career firefighters were still wearing ¾ length boots and long overcoats going into battle. Today’s firefighters wear suits rivaling NASA’s space suits. We’re breathing air from carbon fiber tanks, protected by integrated pass devices monitoring our elapsed time, time left, and temperatures we’re exposed to. Some manufacturers are even experimenting with integrated thermal imaging and gear designed to monitor a fire fighter’s vital signs…and that’s just on the fire scene.
Since 2001, the fire service has truly become an “all hazards” occupation. After all, who do you call when you don’t know what else to do? The fire department is sent to anything from unidentified substances to construction site rescues to MVCs involving alternate fuel vehicles. In all of these circumstances, we embrace technology to help get us manage the problem.
Social media should be no different, but it seems like only a handful of departments truly understand the potential benefits of a strong online presence. The ICS system includes a spot for a public information officer (PIO) at any large-scale event and some departments across the country have integrated the use of social media into that position. The Massachusetts State Police regularly post updates and pictures online about large traffic accidents or other incidents that may affect commuters across the state. Not only do these updates help keep the public informed, they may also help discourage any false information from spreading.
Nearly everyone standing on the sidewalk at a major incident has a cell phone. If we don’t share the correct information, they will share whatever information they THINK they know for a fact. For example, imaging a tanker with liquid nitrogen has tipped over and is spilling its payload on the roadway a few hundred yards from a school. Passers-by are taking pictures of a vapor cloud and posting them online, speculating as to what sort of chemicals are descending on nearby children. This relatively harmless incident could make its way around the world in a matter of seconds. Media outlets will grab hold of this story and run. Without the ability to quickly and effectively relay the correct information, this could create untold headaches for local departments as panicked parents race to the scene and first responders are criticized for years because of their perceived response to this “poisonous gas cloud.”
On the other side of that coin, had there been an actual poisonous cloud, a strong social media campaign can help keep the public informed on road closures, evacuation routes, and collection centers for those who believe they have been affected by the incident. Don’t be fooled into thinking social media is only for people with nothing better to do. News outlets are scouring posts and tweets 24 hours a day, looking to scoop up a big story before anyone else. Social media is simply one more avenue for communication when valuable information needs to be relayed.
Even without its use on emergency scenes, social media can help keep public safety in the public eye on a regular basis. First responders no longer wait in the shadows for someone to call 911. An active online presence can help inform the public about open houses, fire prevention initiatives, the resources available to their community, and an almost endless list of other information. Organizations such as the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) and its affiliates have successfully used social media to help boost awareness of fire prevention, fire fighting, and what firefighters truly do for their communities. IAFF Locals push this tool even farther, sharing information to help support local businesses, charity events, schools, or even missing animals.
Does your department or organization have a strong online presence? I strongly suggest using this tool to interact with the public we serve.
Encourage members to contribute by offering suggestions or pictures with your profile’s administrator(s), but be sure to set clear policies and expectations to protect both your service and your personnel. A strong, responsible social media presence is not difficult to achieve and can be quite beneficial for a number of reasons.
In my next piece, I will be offering ideas for approaches to effective social media campaigns as well as guidelines/policies to consider to keep your campaign on track.
Be sure to contact me at DelayedResponse360@gmail.com or tweet @TLValle with any ideas you may want me to include or explore.
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Tom Valle earned his EMT certification in 2000. After graduating from UMass, Amherst in 2001, Tom worked private ambulance in both Springfield and Greenfield, MA while earning his paramedic certification from Greenfield Community College. He continues to work as a professional firefighter/paramedic in western Massachusetts and serves as the secretary for union’s Local. Tom is continuing his education by working towards a Bachelor’s in Fire Science through Columbia Southern University.
Tom can be reached directly at