Volunteer Vision: March 2016
By Tom DeSorcy
By now all firefighters are aware of the benefits of social media and many of us are proficient on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like. I think it’s time to discuss the risks and hazards associated with social media and what I consider a somewhat disturbing trend in its use.
What seems like a zillion years ago, I was a journalist. That is to say, I was a member of the broadcast media and, as such, was subject to and held accountable for a set of rules and regulations that exist to this day. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission and the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council regulate content on the air using a code of ethics and quite simply, common decency.
But the rules for social media are still developing, and to me it’s unfortunate that the likes of Facebook and Twitter are even called media given the lack of accountability for postings. Legitimate journalists and broadcasters still follow the rules, however, you can imagine how hard it is for them to watch what’s being said on social media and decide whether or not they should believe it. Have you seen a picture of your fire scene on TV news and wondered where it came from? That kind of footage that was submitted by viewers used to be called amateur video, but that is no longer the case. TV journalists often turn to social media for the images they want and give credit to Twitter handles or Facebook users (mind you, this is perfectly legal – images on social media are considered public domain). Many people don’t even realize their images are being used in this way. If you ever post to social media from a scene, assume that picture is being used by media.
Here is the disturbing part and an example of the evolution of the medium: I’ve seen profiling, racism, public shaming and fear mongering on Facebook bulletin boards and so-called rant pages. In fact, I’m sure the sky has fallen once or twice. But where’s the accountability? What ever happened to being ethical and treating people the way you wish to be treated?
Can you imagine if I had gone on the air and said, “Well I heard . . . ”? I would have been fired and the broadcasting license of the station would have been called into question.
The point is that so-called experts are everywhere – with several keystrokes I could easily weave a fractured tale that everyone would believe. Years ago, we used to laugh at tabloid newspapers yet today we are entrenched in tabloid-style reporting from anyone and everyone.
Having experience in the fire service, particularly from a leadership perspective, I am increasingly amazed and equally frustrated at the frequency and speed of social media posts during the early stages of an incident. If firefighters had a social-media feed on board a fire engine and the time to look at it, the posts would give them an incredible size-up and perspective on what they’re getting into. Sooner or later, however, this is going to put people in danger.
Some of you may have seen a sign that reads: In case of fire please exit the building before posting it on social media. That sign is proof that we can only go so far to protect people from themselves.
A few years ago I wrote a column about the value of social media for firefighter situational awareness, and I still preach that idea. However, the opinions of the outside world can also harm your fire department. We teach our firefighters not to take social media posts personally and not to engage those who may be critical of their actions.
I still believe in the power of social media to send messages, be they public education, warnings or team building, but unfortunately that power is often in the wrong hands. People who have no business commenting on issues or events are doing so at an alarming rate. On the other hand, it seems as though an increasing number of users believe everything they read.
Today, media-relations training has taken on a whole new meaning. Do you talk to your firefighters about what to expect on social media, what is acceptable and whether or not you are ever not a member of the fire department when posting to the various platforms? My Twitter account, for example, is a blend between me the fire chief and me the person. I don’t believe in the disclaimer that comments are my own and don’t reflect that of the fire department (it has no legal grounds anyway). Everything I say comes from the chief and that’s the way it will always be.
The same applies to our volunteers: on duty or off, posting on social media or doing anything inappropriate in public will be noticed. Common sense may have left the building, but you need to ensure it remains in your department.
Tom DeSorcy became the first paid firefighter in his hometown of Hope, B.C., when he became fire chief in 2000. Email Tom at TDeSorcy@hope.ca and follow him on Twitter at @HopeFireDept