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Fire Chiefs Must Establish (Multiple) Social Media Policies and Identify What Conduct is Prohibited

By James McLaughlin

In the last several years, social networking has become an integral part of our lives, both professionally and socially. There have been many privacy concerns with social media including recent settlements with social media giants such as Facebook and Google. Facebook recently warned employers not to ask job applicants for their passwords so they can poke around on their profiles. The company threatened legal action against applications that violate its long-standing policy against sharing passwords.

While attending the Fire Department Instructors Conference in Indianapolis last year, I sat in on a discussion that included a panel with retired Deputy Chief Curt Varone. Chief Varone is also an attorney who writes in the Fire Law blog. Chief Varone, along with the other members of the panel, made the suggestion that fire chiefs today need to set up policies regarding social media. In fact, there is probably the need to formulate three separate policies:

  • Ethics policy
  • Digital imagery policy
  • Social media policy

The goal of a social media policy is to promote privacy, both that of the people we serve and of our fellow first responders in the field. Social media policies attempt to regulate a person’s ability to speak or express themselves in various media channels if that expression includes sensitive information. A digital imagery policy is essential to prevent the risk of liability to a city due to a picture or video taken at a scene by an employee who lacks the understanding that the image becomes the property of the jurisdiction where employed.

Does a social media policy enacted by a department infringe on the First Amendment rights of the U.S. Constitution as well as various state constitutions? This is where the issue gets complex. Several great points were highlighted by Edward Robson in his Fire Rescue article, Social Media Policies: What You Need to Know. Generally speaking, Robson noted that the government may not impose restrictions on speech unless they are “content neutral.” Courts are much friendlier toward content-neutral regulations. If a regulation is content neutral, according to Robson, the government must only demonstrate an important purpose for the regulation. It is probably a good practice, however, for a chief to consult with an attorney prior to disciplining or terminating a responder regarding a social media posting because of the potential violation of the responder’s first amendment right.

Last year, the Wichita, Kansas firefighters were banned from using Facebook while on duty at the stations. They were also prohibited from accessing any social networking sites, Internet dating sites and weblogs while on duty. They can never post any derogatory comments about the Wichita Fire Department even when off duty. As you can imagine this policy has generated a lot of feedback from firefighters throughout the country. Many comments on blogs suggest that as long as there is no HIPPA violation, a department should not have the authority to restrict social media interaction. There are also many who believe that it is within the scope of authority of a department to establish guidelines, especially with digital imagery, that can expose a department to a costly lawsuit. Then, of course, there are a whole lot of opinions on this matter somewhere in the middle.

A social media policy should avoid overbroad policies and those that make distinctions based on subject matter or viewpoint. Chiefs should consider multiple policies to specifically identify what conduct is prohibited. Furthermore, the policy must have an appropriate rationale for why using social media in a particular way is prohibited. For example, a policy designed to prevent speech that interferes with a department’s efficient operation is more likely to withstand a challenge versus attempting to ban speech that is “annoying” or “offensive.”

Chief Varone stressed two vey important points regarding social media policies in the fire service. First, it was emphasized that the chief who ignores addressing this issue due to its complexity in nature shows a lack of leadership. Secondly, a one-size policy will not fit all departments. Every department has its own set of circumstances with their own unique collective bargaining agreements which needs to customize to its “comfort zone.” If the leadership of a department does not enact a policy to address social media issues, the department will be susceptible to an inevitable lawsuit or embarrassing situation that could have been avoided with proper policy. If controlled, social media can be an asset to promote the mission statement of a department and educate the public about the services offered by the department to the community.

 ~ James McLaughlin currently serves as Battalion Chief for the Warwick, R.I. Fire Department and has been in fire services since 1988. James has a B.S. in Fire Safety from Providence College and a M.A. in Emergency & Disaster Management from APUS. He has numerous training experiences including the National Fire Academy as well as a fellowship at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Professional affiliations include the International Association of Fire Chiefs, New England Association of Fire Chiefs and the International Association of Firefighters. He is currently the Fire & Emergency Management Education Coordinator at American Military University.


Leischen Kranick is a Managing Editor at AMU Edge. She has 15 years of experience writing articles and producing podcasts on topics relevant to law enforcement, fire services, emergency management, private security, and national security.

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