Today, almost everyone has a smart phone and endless opportunities to record life in real time, the good and the bad. Fire departments must now embrace the social media world in which we live. But what role does social media play in the fire service?
Most fire departments now have an SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) or SOG (Standard Operating Guideline) addressing social media. But is social media helping or hurting your department? Herein lies the problem. Does the SOP or SOG truly guide the fire service to use social media to their advantage?
Public Relations is something the fire service has definitely not mastered. As a rookie volunteer firefighter in the early 90’s, one of the first things stressed to me was “Never take any pictures because you will end up in court”. The truth is, I would end up in court with or without the pictures and it would be much more difficult to convey accuracy without pictures to support and recreate the scene. Several departments have now used social media such as Facebook and Instagram to propel their departments to a new level. This allows fire departments the ability to reach a new generation of firefighters because the new generation is definitely connected by technology and social media. Some departments have even utilized social media to enlist community support to obtain new apparatus, afford pay raises, and seek potential new personnel. Social media has also heightened public awareness of the dangers involved with firefighting and virtually taken viewers into the fire via social media.
Scott Ziegler, a firefighter with Detroit Fire Department, wore a helmet cam for a year while employed as a firefighter with Highland Park, Michigan Fire Department. Scott then appeared on national news giving the nation a glimpse into the life threatening experiences a firefighter faces every day. Am I implying that all social media, or even news media coverage is good? Absolutely not! The key is to train staff about social media etiquette and how to embrace the photographers on the side lines of the scene or during an incident. Yes, you read that correctly; “photographers on the side lines”.
I recently traveled to California to experience fire photography as a fire chaser, known as buffing. I had the honor of working side by side with two Southern California fire photographers, Tod Sudmeier(@epn564) http://www.instagram.com/epn564 and Brandy Carlos (@firephotogirl) http://www.instagram.com/firephotogirl I was amazed at how many fire departments not only welcomed our presence, but they actually encouraged us to get close to the action. Of course, we followed the safety rules outlined by each fire department, such as wearing wildland firefighting gear, as we stood on the front lines streaming live footage via Periscope and Facebook Live to hundreds, even thousands, of viewers around the world. We each shared awesome pictures capturing the action in real time on some of the world’s largest fire service based social media sites.
Social media has even helped the fire service recruit some of the best candidates for the job simply due to the awareness and visibility triggering an increase in applicants. Los Angeles County, Los Angeles City and Cal Fire are some of the most recognizable departments in the world, partially due to social media and dedicated fire photographers. Social media also raises community awareness of the great service their tax dollars are paying for.
Shortly after my California experience, again with California fire photographers Tod Sudmeier(@epn564) and Brandy Carlos , we traveled to Detroit, Michigan. Detroit is one of the country’s most deprived cities and busiest fire departments. They are confronted with a high number of arson related fires. I found that the Battalion Chief would be the one to set the temperature as to how well received the fire photographers were on scene. I made calls where the Battalion Chief would himself be snapping shots as much as he could. Most Battalion Chief’s welcomed us as we followed their rules and stayed out of harm’s way. Real time live broadcast from DFD went out around the word via social media. The world saw top notch firefighters doing an amazing job despite the struggles their department has experienced in the way of equipment and manpower. We later responded to a call with DFD where the Battalion Chief was anti-fire photographer and anti-social media. As one photographer was streaming live to viewers world-wide while obeying all the rules and respecting the firefighters on scene from a safe distance outside the hot-zone, the battalion chief begins yelling at him. The photographer, a retired firefighter himself, chose to cut the live feed as to not reflect negatively on the fire department. After all, it was the firefighters that we were there to represent and they deserve the utmost respect. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident and the photographer has felt it necessary to cut live feed on other occasions at different locations.
Realistically, we live in a world where everyone is at the mercy of social media. Fire departments need to embrace the professional fire photographers as their goal of honoring the fire service is the one true defense guarding fire departments from the negative effects social media can bring. Your department can either stand by and become a casualty of social media or your department can choose to prepare staff and public relation officers on how to use social media to propel your department to the next level. Social media is here to stay. I encourage each of you to choose a direction and develop a plan for the role social media will play in the success of your department. The choice is yours, make it a good one.
Federal Government Fire Chief, Fire Department social media consultant and owner of the world’s largest Fire Instagram page @chief_miller.
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