Firefighter Social Media Toll Continues to Rise

The toll that social media posts are taking on the fire service continues to mount this week. Last week, Dave Statter listed 10 cases that hit the news, several involving chief officers. The trend continues this week.

In New York, Hillcrest Fire Chief Rick Larson is facing a backlash following a post that discussed following rioters home and burning their properties. Over the weekend the fire company announced it was “looking into” the allegations and this week Chief Larson posted an apology. More on that story.

In Florida, a battalion chief with Miami-Dade Fire Rescue has been placed on administrative leave following remarks he posted on social media. Chad Hooten is accused of having posted “We have reached levels of ludicrous. It’s unbelievable—Leaders kneeling, white people kissing the boots of black people. It’s the great capitulation.” More on that story.

In California, Modesto area firefighter facing an outcry over their social media comments: “All Lives Splatter” and “Nobody cares About Your Protest.”  More on that story.

Dave uses the term SMACS, or social media assisted career suicide. I prefer the broader term cyber-casualty. In either event, the problem leaves us wondering – where do we go from here. As a society to deal with what is prompting these posts, I will leave that to the experts and pseudo-experts.

In terms of fire service leadership, the course could not be clearer. We need:

  1. a sound, legally-enforceable social media policy that passes muster in the First Amendment, and where applicable collective bargaining laws;
  2. to train our personnel on the policy so that they understand what they can safely post, and what types of posts are likely to get them in trouble; and
  3. effective supervision and enforcement of the policy so that our most valuable asset, our people, are treated in a fair and reasonable manner.

It’s a three-legged stool and to be effective all three legs must be addressed.

For those who lament that the firefighters who are getting themselves in trouble “lack common sense” or just “aren’t using their heads” … think about this: when we hire a firefighter we do not assume they know how to stretch a hose line, wear an SCBA, or vent a roof. We train them. That is common sense.

Why do we assume these same folks know where the line is when it comes to social media?

And even if we made that mistake 10 years ago by assuming firefighters would (or should) know where the line is, wouldn’t their behavior since then have made it clear… Their behavior is telling us time and time again that they do not know where the line is.

Knowing what types of comments are protected speech and what types are not – can and should be taught. Even fire chiefs who earnestly believe they don’t need any more training because they “already know everything they need to know” can learn a little something.

July 8, 2020 I will be hosting a 3-hour webinar, Drafting and Implementing an Effective Social Media Policy. The session I delivered last month had 96 attendees. That was May 6, 2020. Recent events have only made the need for this training all the more urgent.

Here is the link for more information on the webinar.

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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