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Editors’ pick 2015: Think before you tweet

I did it twice the other day and I liked it. It was easy, somewhat fun and I did it in private, but I did not follow through; I hit the delete button and went back to work. I couldn’t follow through because one of my father’s adages – he served in the fire service for 40 years – screamed in my head while I composed the tweet: if you can’t say anything positive about someone then don’t say anything at all. So I hit the delete button. There’s a similar saying when it comes to snail mail; write the nasty letter, then put it in your desk drawer for a day and see if you still want to send it the next morning.

Social media is a powerful, instant and non-retrievable tool in our work and personal spheres. It is relatively easy and usually gratifying to tweet and post our thoughts, pictures and comments to the world. We know who sees our messages when they like them or retweet them, but perhaps just as importantly, we don’t know who is monitoring and seeing our messages. Indeed, we all have to realize that our on-duty and off-duty posts are subject to review, and can be tracked, searched and viewed by anyone, anywhere.

Social media is not a new forum. Facebook posts were being liked more than 10 years ago. Tweets were being retweeted eight years ago. There are now firefighters in the service who have never mailed a stamped envelope with a letter inside. In this digital age, it is easy to say or upload something we probably would not say or show to our grandmothers or our children. I’m not the ethics police or a behavioural consultant, but it seems to me that there should be more awareness of the proper use of social media among those in the fire hall. That awareness starts at the top and goes all the way down to the newest recruit.

The foremost aspect of your social media awareness starts with knowing whether your local government or fire service has a policy on the use of social media. Ensure you understand what the policy means to you and how it applies to you as a firefighter. Does it apply to you off duty? Are you sure? How does your provincial freedom-of-information law apply to what you post as an on-duty member of the fire department? You may think your conversation is private, however, it may become a part of the public record and your comments may actually be the property of the city/town. Be careful not to use social media to post information about an emergency to which you are responding and/or investigating.

Social media is a powerful tool for the fire service to use to disseminate timely messages to the public about fire safety, or important information during an emergency. Fire-service leaders can also use social media as a tool to get their messages out to duty crews. (This reminds me of the monthly VHS department-update videos some chiefs used to send out just a few short years ago, but I digress.)

Alternatively, social media can be harmful to a firefighter or a fire chief when it’s used inappropriately either on or off duty. Joseph Cohen-Lyons wrote in a November 2011 article published by the Public Sector Digest, that an inappropriate use of social media by employees is when the message “impacts the legitimate interests of their employer and affects their ability to perform their functions as public sector employees.”

Yes, you have freedom of expression, but if you think that what you say on social media is private and no one else’s business, you may want to think again. In November, an arbitrator upheld the dismissal of a Toronto firefighter because his off-duty Twitter comments were determined to be a serious misconduct. In this case, the firefighter was identifiable as a member of the Toronto fire service.

Using social media can be a fun and easy way to get an official fire-service message or personal thought out to the rest of the world, but with such power comes much responsibility related to its use.

According to the Toronto labour law firm Hicks Morley (www.hicksmorley.com), firefighters (full time or volunteer), need to be aware that:

  • it is the responsibility of firefighters of all ranks who use social media to understand the risks of usage, regardless of whether they think the comments are private;
  • that firefighters, as civil servants, may be held to a higher standard than other workers; and
  • that the employer may/should have a social media policy that governs firefighters’ social-media behaviour.

Share this information with your team, and remember, around the fire hall, at the fire department fish fry or while on social media – you lead as you are.


Doug Tennant is the fire chief in Deep River, Ont. Contact Doug at dougietennant@gmail.com


March 2, 2015
By Doug Tennant

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