Walking the Social Media Tightrope

In the age of up-to-the-second news, thanks to an ever changing and improving technology field, social media has become a part of everyday life – for better or for worse. And the fire service has been by no means exempt from the social media spectrum.

But make no mistake—social media can present some serious issues that the fire service has been attempting to avoid, in some form, for many years. Photographs posted by firefighters and firefighters alike have recently become a legal issue in many departments across the country.

This has led to a majority of departments across the country to enact strict social media policies that enforce what employees and volunteers are able to post on their personal and professional social media accounts.

Long gone are the days of posting any photograph in the name of “training purposes” – the fact is that patient privacy law is enforced much stricter than it was just a few years ago, and only after a serious of permissions are obtained can a photo be deemed useful for training.

The idea of regulating posts made by responders is certainly a smart one, and one done with much reasoning behind the policies. I’m all for protecting a patients personal privacy, and reason I hold high above all other. But as much as we don’t want to admit it, an underlying reason for many of these policies is because we simply don’t want the public to see us operate at all times.

And mistakes do happen. But unlike mistakes in of five years ago, there’s almost always going to be a camera capturing it now, and regulating what gets posted helps to keep a seemingly harmless mistake to firefighters into becoming an unnecessary circus of complaints from citizens.

However, the citizen journalist is an ever-present factor in the world of social media and online presence – and recently actions within the fire service have come under fire not because of content posted by fellow responders, but by citizen bystanders.

Last March, Miami-Dade Fire Rescue took center stage following an on-camera dispute between, Taylor Hardy, a citizen journalist filming at the scene of a medical helicopter transport, and one of MDFR’s commanding officers, Captain Greg Smart.

In the video, Smart can be seen confronting Hardy after he was asked to back away from the scene and stop filming. Smart angrily yells at the citizen, first arguing that he is violating patient privacy, than arguing that he is compromising scene safety.

Smart has since come under fire from those in the emergency service community, mainly for the tone and manner of his confrontation, and the fact that Smart cited scene safety while several cars drove between the videographer and the helicopter as well as the fact that Smart had bloody gloves on during the confrontation.

In another incident last year, the career fire chief of the Uniontown Fire Department in Uniontown, Fayette County, PA was filmed by a citizen videographer, who was soon to be engaged with a profanity-ridden confrontation from the chief regarding the videographer’s proximity to a fire scene.

This video reveals Chris Shellhammer, a concerned citizen filming a fire at a home in his neighborhood, who is asked to move back by fire personnel. After complying with the request to move back, Shellhammer is then confronted by Chief Charles Conrad, who using a series of expletives to express his apparent dislike of Shellhammer’s position.

At one point in the video, Conrad, scene in jeans and a t-shirt as opposed to turnout gear or the fire department uniform other son scene are wearing, challenges Shellhammer to a fight. The mayor of Uniontown has since launched an investigation into the incident.

These two incidents are just an example of the evolution of the Internet in regards to the fire service. The reality of the times is that no matter where we go, or how much we attempt to regulate from within, we live in a world of constant media. Regardless of where you are, chances are there’s a camera watching.

Instead of attempting to regulate how the public views us, it’s time for the fire service to embrace social media. With governments across the country looking to cut budgets any way possible, it’s time for the public to understand what their emergencies services do on a day-to-day basis and manage our own social media output.

It’s also time not to shy away from potential criticism. It’s time to accept responsibility and to be held accountable for our mistakes. If we’re going to stop injuries and deaths on the fire ground, we have to be willing to critique.

If nothing else, think twice before confronting the bystander with his or her camera out. If you’re not careful, you could be the next Captain Smart or Chief Conrad, the focus of what needs to change in the fire service to change the public image. Stay safe.


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