Fire Fighting in Canada

Features Hot topics Incident reports
An about face – Alberta Floods

For those chiefs and chief officers who think Facebook and Twitter are the fodder of teenagers, think again.

July 29, 2013 
By Chad Sartison

For those chiefs and chief officers who think Facebook and Twitter are the fodder of 12-year-old schoolboys and girls, think again. There was a marked change in the world that not many of us in North America recognized, and it happened on Jan. 27. 2011, when the Egyptian government turned off the Internet for all Egyptians. Two weeks later, the 30-year government of Hosni Mubarak ended. It’s indisputable that the Internet and social media played a role.

Dictators hate social media because they cannot control it. For the fire service, the problem is that social media happens whether we are in the game or not, so it’s in our best interest to get in the game. Social media is, well, social; this means it is a conversation, and in order to effectively participate, you must be willing to relinquish half of the airtime. This can be tough for some chiefs and councils who are all too familiar with talking and not listening.   

The June flood in High River, Alta., is a perfect example of how social media can be used to effectively communicate to our customers. Why did we use social media? Because the vast majority of our infrastructure was down, the entire town of High River was evacuated and away from TV, and the local newspaper office was under water. To put this in perspective, on Day 2 of the disaster, I was interviewed by two reporters who had lost their homes and were no different than the people they were interviewing. How else were we to communicate?  

Fortunately for the Foothills Fire Department, eight months earlier, Fire Chief Jim Smith and Deputy Gregg Schaalje had taken a leap of faith and allowed officers to start a Facebook page ( to communicate to the public.  


Initially, the page was relatively benign. On the morning of the flood, the page had about 400 likes, with about 25 people at any one time talking about the page (yes, you can track this). Fire bans, safety tips and other such notices were disseminated through the page with relative success, and Facebook became a great vehicle through which to communicate to the community updates on the training and hard work the department’s firefighters were doing on a daily basis.

Fast-forward today Sunday, June 28 (five days later) and that same page has 4,664 likes, more than 350,000 interactions, and more than 12,800 people talking about it. So how did we get there?

On day one of the flood, some of the Foothills officers came to the chief with the idea of advertising the page to local residents. Chief Smith and Deputy Schaalje, anticipating the benefit, immediately approved a budget of $100. This lasted for about a day, when it immediately became apparent that the Foothills Fire Department page was quickly becoming the primary conduit for evacuation photos and information. The budget was expanded to $500.

Comments were being posted on the page at more than 200 a day. For the most part, the comments were extremely positive; anything negative could be quickly dealt with and mitigated through – you guessed it – effective communication. With an average of 250,000 interactions a day, it never became necessary to delete a malicious comment or ban a user – all this in an atmosphere that could best be described as a pressure cooker of anxious frustration by a displaced community.

Here are a few of the more than 1,000 comments posted on the Foothills Fire Department Facebook page:

“Thank you for these updates. Staying connected to our town is the only thing keeping us sane. Info is so desperately needed.”

“Thank you so much! It’s not just your family and friends proud of you we as residents are very, very Proud of you all too! Thanks for having our backs.”

“Thanks so much for all the work and energy and care you are putting into our community! You are appreciated! Thanks also for giving us a peek into our town. It helps to know what’s going on.”

To some extent, society is still trying to come to terms with social media. Many fire departments and their municipalities avoid social media because of potential ramifications from inappropriate comments, when they should consider the ramifications of not being involved in the conversation in the first place.

Even my own department flinched in June when the upper offices told us to stop an internal, private Facebook group that was set up to keep firefighters connected. We deleted the group, much to the dismay of many of the members who benefited from it.  

It will take months, if not years, to fully dissect Canada’s second-worst natural disaster and the response that followed, but one thing is for sure: in today’s world, information is liberating and, for the most part, can no longer be controlled.  Our draconian thinking must give way to new communication strategies or the natural disasters we face will pale in comparison to the public relations disasters that will inevitably follow.

Chad Sartison is a captain with Foothills Fire Department in Alberta and the founder and president of The Fire Within. Contact him at

Print this page


Stories continue below