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Volunteer Vision: March 2014


February 26, 2014
By Tom DeSorcy

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Social media can be our best friend or our worst enemy. Say the wrong thing, post the wrong picture and you have more than egg on your face.

Social media can be our best friend or our worst enemy. Say the wrong thing, post the wrong picture and you have more than egg on your face. In the past year, I’ve sat in on four or five sessions involving the use of social media in emergencies, and it’s this fear of posting the wrong thing that I think has scared people away from being regular participants. Frankly, I thought we were beyond that; using this concern as an excuse to not get involved is starting to wear a little thin with me. More and more fire-service managers have discovered that we can use social media to our advantage. 

A close friend of mine recently got a new smartphone. This guy comes from the rotary-dial generation. Naturally, I got involved helping to set up the phone, when he said, “Hey, sign me up for Twitter.”  He really doesn’t know why he wants to “be on it,” just that he does. I’m pro-social media for just about anyone but if you want it just to say you have it then it’s not for you. Needless to say, my friend’s education now begins, but his attitude brings up an excellent point: too many chief fire officers jump into social media – in particular, Twitter – create a profile and then that’s it. To be effective on Twitter, you need to take it to the next level. Think about it: the pump on your truck won’t work when you need it if it hasn’t been used regularly. Twitter is not going to work for you if you don’t embrace it and learn how to manage it.

In fire fighting, training and practice are two different things. Sometimes you learn something new; other times you practise the skills you already have. In the world of social media, you learn technique and practise common sense. Getting your point across in 140 characters or fewer can be tough. Add a hashtag or two and mention the right people and you’ve got your work cut out for you to stay within the character count. Twitter is based on an advertising practice – I tell two people and they tell two people and so on. Because Twitter is written rather than spoken, it remains accurate no matter how many times it’s repeated. However, inaccurate information on Twitter can be re-tweeted and, therefore, the error is perpetuated; that’s why it’s so important to be active on your account – to make sure correct information goes out regularly and that any incorrect information is quickly corrected by you or your department.

Starting out on Twitter may seem like a bit of a project but it’s really just information you already have: you create a profile, a presence in the online world, which gives you an opportunity to promote and sell yourself and your department and monitor what’s going on.

Twitter is a two-way street. Not only are you developing a following, but you also have the ability to follow others and see what they are saying about you or your department. If you see something you like, you can support it by “favouriting” it, or re-tweeting it. If there are inaccuracies you can correct them or even ignore them. This form of communication is extremely valuable in incidents as today everyone else knows as much about our activities as we do and sometimes even more. Take a look around an emergency scene and try to count the number of mobile devices recording everything – all the more reason to know what they are saying. I recently followed the operation of a major structure fire from a department 500 kilometres away and knew exactly what was going on even though none of the information came from the department itself – it all came from bystanders.

Many departments that have Twitter accounts have demonstrated the effectiveness of this medium for communicating in emergencies. The fact that the departments had an established following before the incident made getting their messages out much easier. How do you develop that following? Follow people, agencies and departments you’re interested in. Follow me and other Fire Fighting in Canada writers but don’t stop there. Tweet and re-tweet. By doing this you are developing a presence and when the time comes, you will have an established audience. If you’re still worried about being painted in the wrong light, well, social media is just that – social; if it’s not socially acceptable behaviour then don’t post it. 

I grew up in the media so I’m drawn to this type of communication. However, the fire world in which I grew up was one in which our activities were kept a secret of sorts. We didn’t tell the public what happened at a fire scene. We seemingly went about our business anonymously, which I found ironic as we were called to duty by a fire siren that the whole town heard. If you wanted to go to a call without anyone knowing, then that certainly wasn’t the way to do it. #changeisgood


Tom DeSorcy became the first paid firefighter in his hometown of Hope, B.C., when he became fire chief in 2000. E-mail Tom at TDeSorcy@hope.ca and follow him on Twitter at @HopeFireDept


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