SC Firefighter Paramedic Fired Over Facebook Video

Colleton County, South Carolina paramedic and firefighter Jason Brown was fired earlier this month because of a video he posted on Facebook. Brown’s situation is similar to an increasing number of disciplinary actions being taken against firefighters for social networking. The case shows the challenge that fire service leaders and firefighters face in dealing with social media issues.

What appears to be uncontroverted is that Brown created an animated video at a web site,, on which you can create cartoon-like characters, type in a script, and the characters will speak in a robotic-like language. The video involved two characters, a white firefighter and a black doctor, set in the emergency department of a hospital. That is about all the parties can agree on.

Brown claims he had no evil intent, did not intend for the video to depict his department or the local hospital, and did not intend to insult anyone. However, Brown’s dismissal letter said "This video has created an embarrassing situation for this department, our public image and the cooperative relationship we enjoy with Colleton Medical Center. It reflects poorly on you and Colleton County." The letter also accuses Brown of producing a “derogatory video”. The video depicted the doctor in an unflattering light.

The problem with many of the cases like Brown’s, is that fire departments, by and large, have no rules and regulations pertaining to social media and social networking. As such, fire chiefs who are upset with something a firefighter posts online, must make a case of “conduct unbecoming”, “dishonorable behavior” or some similar catch-all regulation. Such cases run into all sorts of legal challenges because “conduct unbecoming” is inherently vague and subject to interpretation. The United States Supreme Court as said repeatedly that rules and regulations are invalid if they forbid or require the doing of an act "in terms so vague that men of common intelligence must necessarily guess as to its meaning and differ as to its application." Zwickler v. Kota (1967)

Fire departments need to have written policies to deal with social networking issues for the benefit of the department, as well as for the benefit of the members. If Colleton County had a clear policy, there would be no guesswork about what is and is not permitted, and whether Brown's video crossed the line. Firefighters deserve to know the rules beforehand, and not have to guess about what is and is not permissable.

Fire service leaders should be under no illusions – cases like Brown’s are going to increase. We are seeing the very beginning of what will be a very large problem that can either be effectively managed…. or ignored… until it cannot be ignored.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
  • Curt, couldn’t agree with you more, and it’s not just about social networking, it’s much bigger than that in my opinion. It’s really a question of: does the fire chief govern their department under the “rule of law” or “the rule of man.”
    I also think it–social networking–is the most example of the “collision” between generations that’s occurring in many organizations, not just the fire service. Those collisions are being exacerbated by the “explosion” of social media and the accelerated technology that feeds it.

  • Wow – the fire chief governing their department. Now that’s something you don’t hear discussed any more!
    The technology is changing so quickly that our laws have trouble keeping up, and our rules and regulations often lag behind the law. Privacy laws written to address postal mail attempt to address text messages and Twitter – and who know’s what is jsut around the corner.
    Thanks for the post!

  • Jason P

    Do you have a few referrals for me in regards to verbiage on this type of specific policy? We are looking at implementing one in regards to “videoing” while on duty from helmet cams. We want to review any such recordings prior to our people publishing them on websites/

  • Jason
    Great question! This entire area is a minefield so you need to go slowly. There are issues you probably have not even thought of – I discuss it a little bit here:
    We go over it in several of the classes I teach (Fire Service Leadership: the Law and Legal Issues; Fire Service Legal Hot Topics; and Managing Fire Service Legal & Safety Best Practices.) If you simply copy someone elses policy on this without understanding the underlying issues you may find yourself in hot water.
    The spoliation issue is the biggest concern by far – and any digital imaging policy that does not address that in a comprehensive matter creates enormous risks. Call me or email me and we can discuss the specifics.

  • Colleton County, South Carolina secondary and firefighters Jason Brown was fired because he posted the video on Facebook early this month. Brown’s situation is similar, more and more disciplinary action is taken on the social networking firefighters. The case shows the challenges leaders and firefighters in the fire with the media issues facing society.Yeah,i think so.


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