Florida Firefighters Get Reprieve on Strict Social Media Policy

Many fire departments are struggling with how to deal with the social media and digital imagery problems that so often have made headlines. Some departments have adopted strict policies, some have adopted more flexible policies, and some have buried their proverbial heads in the sand – hoping that the next social media train wreck does not involve their department.

Firefighters in Coral Gables, Florida received a reprieve of sorts recently when the department agreed to rescind its strict social media policy that was implement on October 28, 2011. The policy had been drafted by a city attorney.

Brendan Fonock, vice president of the Coral Gables Professional Firefighters IAFF Local 1210, filed a grievance over the policy shortly after it was issued, claiming it restricted the First Amendment Rights of firefighters.  “We don’t have a problem with them having a social media policy, but this one was so restrictive of people’s freedom of speech… It’s not against the law to be a firefighter and have an opinion.”

Both sides have agreed to work together to reach a mutually acceptable compromise on a new policy. One challenge with drafting a social media policy is the evolving nature of social media in our lives. The use of sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn have exploded in recent times, and the law simply has not caught up. Many attorneys are not attuned to the emerging issues.

A second challenge is the variety of complex legal issues are potentially raised, including:

  • 1st Amendment free speech
  • HIPAA and medical confidentiality
  • Privacy rights of employees and citizens
  • Collective bargaining rights and the right to engage in concerted activities
  • Copyright law
  • New laws intended to restrict photo taking and dissemination by emergency personnel at incident scenes

Social media policies are not a one size fits all proposition, and copying another department’s policy can be a recipe for disaster. Each workplace is different, with different individuals, values, practices and histories. In an ideal world, there would be a level of trust and openness between labor and management that would lead to a collaborative approach to policy development. In many cases such collaboration is not possible.

A reality that should bring firefighters and fire chiefs together: social media nightmares often claim the careers of the firefighters involved, and just as frequently they damage the career of fire chiefs. A sound social media policy can protect the careers of both firefighters and chiefs.

Here is more on the Coral Gables story.

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.

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