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Between Alarms – July 2013


June 21, 2013
By Arjuna George

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It was only recently that I that I discovered the power of social media and the Internet when combined with politics.

It was only recently that I that I discovered the power of social media and the Internet when combined with politics.

It is far easier today to access and distribute information than at any time in history. This rapid access to data has changed how we speak and how we do business. It has made me wonder how the fire service can use this technology to improve our services, our messages, and our political goals.

Those who have read my previous columns or who follow me on Facebook or Twitter know that I am an advocate for social media. Social media has its place and it can contribute enormously to the successes of our fire services.

Classic, or traditional, media  – TV, radio and newsprint – is low on the interactivity scale, and viewer participation is limited. Social media invites and breeds user interaction.

It is easy to start a revolution through social media, to turn the tables or alter political stability in mere seconds. The rate of political reaction has sped up so much that, if you are not involved, you are falling behind.

Truths or non-truths can spread like wildfire across the world faster than you can even attempt to respond to the social-media posts. For the fire service, this can be a challenge: How do we manage such a high volume of community voices? With today’s technology, a comment or viewpoint can be shared with thousands of people and can instantly spark a tidal wave of feedback, retweets and shares, many of which may be emotional and reactive. When it comes to politics on social media, clear heads are hard to find – it is so easy to let your passion and emotion cloud your communications and to type out a few negative thoughts, as opposed to verbalizing those thoughts in person at a public meeting. Emotions and politics are a dangerous combination, and when mixed with the power of the Internet, they can be nasty and detrimental to the issues.

The change isn’t all bad, though. Fire services can use social media to express our political voices more easily and more often than ever before. We now have a great tool in our hands to promote, brand and share our services’ needs. Large or small departments have a voice, and the capability to influence and educate our communities.

Social media provides us with a better community profile, fleshes out public concerns, and allows people to understand what we do. By fleshing out the community’s issues we can try to answer them more fully and effectively. In this day and age, people want answers!
Another benefit of social media is community engagement. Activity online tends to lead to better offline, real-world participation, such as better attendance at public meetings and higher voter turnout on election days.

A Pew Research Center study on social media, released in April and titled Civic Engagement in the Digital Age, found that 43 per cent of the social networking site users who had been surveyed had decided to learn more about a political or social issue because of something they read about on a social media site, and that 18 per cent had decided to take action involving a political or social issue because of something they read on those sites. This is great news for those who embrace social media, and it confirms that social media users have a lot of power that we can use to educate our communities.

So, how can fire services improve our political acumen now that we have access to better tools?

  1. Have a presence on social media before political agendas or issues arise. Build your audience and earn their trust now. Between the alarms is when we need to build our following. Having a base of followers and an early social media presence give us a solid foundation from which to build once political issues heat up. Think of your social media followers as your backup team: they know what to expect, they have been educated on the issues, they understand the business and they have your back. This can be very helpful when support is needed.
  2. Assign one or two people in your organization to manage your department’s social media. Unfortunately, for many departments, social media is not a fixture in anyone’s daily routine. It now belongs front and centre, part of the daily work. These social media specialists need to be well versed in all platforms and must dedicate the time to read, share and respond to everything related to our business. These team players need to have the authority to answer questions and post comments on behalf of the fire department. We need to pay more attention to what people are saying on social media. This is the No. 1 area that we and other businesses need to address so that we don’t fall victim to negative online messages.
  3. Stick to the facts! Keep it simple and keep emotions out of it. It’s not personal. This political arena is both exciting and scary, but for us to succeed we must find ways to manage and embrace it.

Social media is here to stay, we just need to understand how to make it work for us.  


Arjuna George is a 15-year veteran and the deputy fire chief of Operations on Salt Spring Island, B.C. E-mail him at ageorge@saltspringfire.com and follow him on Twitter at @AJGeorgefire


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