Technology rules our lives. We hardly make it through the day without relying on our phones or computers, using email, text messaging, apps for everything, online convenience systems (banking, scheduling, etc) and social networks. It’s difficult to think about life before email exchange on day-to-day business interactions. Technology is here to stay and can be leveraged by the fire service to our advantage as it has in many other professions.
Social media is a broad term. It is mainly used to describe platforms where people can connect. There are more platforms than I can describe, in fact there are more than I even know about. Social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instragram, and Pinterest – and websites like Blogspot and WordPress have gone from a medium designed for staying in touch with friends and family to one where information is requested, exchanged, and shared with like-minded people. Facebook and Twitter provide the opportunity for people to have discussions and learn from each other on group pages. Firefighters at every level of experience can have personal contact with firefighters from similar and different levels of experience, size of department, and firefighting styles. In the world where everyone has a camera at the ready, plenty of videos on YouTube are posted that can be used for training, providing both good and bad examples. Sharing training programs and presentations is easier than ever with Dropbox, Google Drive and other similar sites. A presentation created in developed in Minnesota can be slightly modified and used minutes later in California, New York, or anywhere else.
Websites and blogs are a great opportunity for people to get their message out. Anyone can create a website and put up their opinions or suggestions. There are some great ones out there focused on the fire service. Whether you’re looking for leadership, building construction, firefighter training, PTSD in first responders, fire research, salty war stories, fire service products, fire saves (or grabs), opinions or fire service news, it’s out there. It’s amazing; tons and tons of great resources. Lieutenant Grant Schwalbe, Estero Fire Rescue (FL) said, “Years back a mentor told me to read something fire every day. That was do-able but it took work. Now essentially you can get a constant stream of tips tricks and motivation by the friends you select. Do your homework on who you follow and in time you will have mentors, friends, and brothers from all over the country. Anyone can be your senior man.”
As I was preparing to write this article, I did what I have done countless times before when I am looking for different perspectives. I tapped into the vast world of social media. I opened up Facebook and posted the following comment, “Working on a story about the role of social media in fire training – pros and cons… what are your thoughts?” What followed was a robust discussion about the ups and downs of using social media; different people playing off each other’s ideas as if we were sitting around a kitchen table sharing our thoughts in real-time. I also received a few private messages and an extended email with pros and cons that reached beyond my perspective.
Before operational decisions are made by committee members from various departments, fire officers post questions in Facebook groups asking for advice or guidance on equipment or tactical priorities. The discussions are packed with knowledge and shifts in perspectives that come from experience in different sized departments. As an example, there was a discussion in an engine company focused Facebook group recently on hose loads; the following question was posted, “Looking for the origin of the triple layer load. I was speaking with someone last month that thought it was originally an airport load because of the open space at airports. Anyone know anything?” There were over thirty responses talking about the benefits and drawbacks of the triple-load and suggestions on what other loads might work.
Captain Brian Zaitz, Metro West Fire District (MO) said that social media, “Provides the ability to reach a broad audience efficiently, effectively and very inexpensively. It also allows for some amount of two-way dialogue without having to be tied to a phone or conference call. With the broad audience there is also the ability to garner opinions from that vast audience and learn what is working and what is not working. The cons are almost the same as the pros, social media allows everyone to have a voice and provide their opinion, sometimes without any validation or vetting from the fire service. This is a huge concern to me as many look to industry leaders for methods and techniques for fire attack, training and SOGs, and with little regard some provide a skewed view of what is really out there.”
Social media allows people to establish strong relationships with brothers and sisters in the fire service around the country. It provides a platform for asking questions, voicing frustrations and celebrating successes with people who have walked the same paths. It affords the opportunity to tap into the collective knowledge and support of the “big names” in the fire service from giant metropolitan departments, to those who run a dozen calls a year; from communities in another state to a rural department in a foreign country. Captain Kevin Story, Houston Fire Department (TX) pointed out that “The Internet has put some quality people out there who normally would have been delayed years getting published in a trade journal.” The reach of the Internet provides access to firefighters across the country. Each of these men and women have perspectives you don’t. They hold cards you likely haven’t seen before. Scott Corrigan, Pierce County Fire (WA) said social media provides the “Ability to network nationally and internationally. It also allows the ability to create closed groups for more focused discussions (groups that are topic based, regional, KSA related).”
Sharing new research, articles, blogs, inspirational quotes, success stories and the like in real time is a significant social media benefit. But the open sharing of social media also provides opportunity for ”˜Keyboard Commanders,’ those who find all the negative things with operations, to critique moments in time. Each frame that is captured is just that ”“ a split second in time. Chief Joseph Knitter, South Milwaukee Fire Department (WI) said social media “Provides ”˜Keyboard Experts’ with opportunities to weigh in with their experience with little ability of the audience to prove if they actually have any . . . As they say, if it’s on the Internet, it’s true (Bonjour).” Think back through the last emergency scene you were at. Think about your own actions or those that you witnessed. Would every frame be without something that could be taken out of context? When you’re sitting behind your keyboard, you need to remember the golden rule and the old adage about living in glass houses. Yes, it’s okay to mention safety issues or even ask questions and relate it to how you operate. It’s not okay to tear our brothers and sisters, their departments, and their communities apart because of one frame in time. Ask questions, send messages privately, use the forum as an opportunity for growth.
Shea Chwialkowski, Richfield Fire Department (MN) pointed out a few things to keep in mind while looking through articles and tactic ideas on social media, “Assuming what worked for them will work for you can cause problems. The information is often delivered in sporadic layering, for example you may read a doctoral level tactical article before you understand the kindergarten level fundamentals. You can run into information overload and conflicting information. Watching unsafe acts with no consequences, seeing guys getting lucky, dangerously fosters the normalization of deviance. Another major downside is what happens in the comment section, watching firefighters cannibalize each other is utterly disheartening and erodes the idea of brotherhood.”
As a consumer of information, you need to be skeptical of everything you see in print. If you see something that doesn’t sit right with you, dig deeper. Information is readily available, look for more. Make sure that the information you are spending your time on is accurate and credible. Battalion Chief Jim Duffy, Wallingford Fire Department (CT) pointed out that, “A lot of the information on the internet has questionable validity and could be based solely on opinion without much research or experience. You must choose wisely and come to your own conclusions.”
If you are considering tapping a little more into social media for gathering training or other fire service information, start with the names you know. Seek out the people or companies who you know from your research and experience outside of the social media realm. Start following them, and see who they are following. Take small bites rather than trying to jump in with both feet. The important thing to remember is that after spending time on YouTube to search ladder placement and after pouring through advice on the truck company groups on Facebook and Twitter, you’re going to have to turn the computer off, or set the phone down, head out to the truck, and grab a ladder. You’re going to have to get your hands on the halyard and some sweat on your brow.