Passion or Bullying? Social Media in the Fire Service

By Jason Caughey

The American fire service has many long-standing traditions that range from the color of our fire trucks to the dalmatian in the firehouse. One of the greatest traditions of the fire service is the brother and sisterhood exemplified by the amazing men and women that choose to serve their communities. The depth of brother/sisterhood of the fire service is not found in many professions and is a true representation of what the American fire service is based on ─ service, unity, integrity, and pride.

Today, the fire service is more connected than ever. Just a few decades ago, a firefighter had to travel to a national fire conference or wait for the latest addition of the monthly firefighter magazine to be exposed to new ideas and concepts. Our organizations were primarily influenced by the “senior member” of the organization or by our local traditions and community values. Most fire departments stood alone, independent of each other, and had a strong sense of family. However, with the evolution of social media, our firefighters and our organizations are continually influenced ─ almost bombarded ─ with training opportunities and opinions from firefighters and fire departments from across the world.

While there are positives that come out of the readily available connections and stream of information provided by social media, there is also a negative side to the steady flow of comments and opinions. It intrigues me that through social media, some of our actions are not matching the definition of brother/sisterhood.

Everyday some fire service PROFESIONAL is attacking another firefighter or organization for the tactic they use, or the nozzle they use, or what helmet or PPE they wear. Even worse, there are firefighters attacking their peers because of background, gender, race, geographic location, paid versus volunteer, or another arbitrary factor. Is this truly brother/sisterhood? Do these things define you as a member of the fire service family?

We are all in this fight together, and courage, dedication, commitment, and desire to serve the community does not change because of fireground tactics, color of gear, or type of equipment.

Warriors come in many different forms, colors, and shapes, but they are still a warrior.

Valor and honor are not limited to volunteer or career, smooth bore or combination nozzle, black gear or tan, leather or plastic helmets.

Valor and honor are represented by passion, energy, and courage. It is developed through dedication and commitment.

We are all brothers and sisters in the fire service. Regardless if you respond to 10 calls or 10,000 calls for service a year, you are part of the family.

So, the question becomes: Do our actions on social media represent the brother/sisterhood? Is there a fine line between passion and bullying? I ask the question because educated, passionate discussions on science and fireground tactics can be very healthy and beneficial. The key is to keep them professional and fact-based vs. emotionally-based.

Unfortunately, there are some that have taken their passion as a license to attack and bully others through the keyboard of their computer. Back in the day, bullies were identified and addressed face-to-face by either ignoring them or settling the discussion. Today, many bullies attack the innocent through the shield of social media. There are no consequences for their actions, thus making them feel emboldened to spew negative and hurtful comments and opinions. The other challenge with the social media bully is that most of the comments are not factual or science-based. In many cases their comments aren’t even based off their own organization’s values or operations, but rather based off of ego or image.

With the almost boundaryless impact of social media on the fire service, it becomes more important than ever to have perspective. Perspective provides us all a better understanding of why organizations choose to utilize a certain tactic or tool. Perspective is extremely valuable in giving us insight into the person on the other side of the screen.

It angers me when I see people tear into an organization or its members immediately in the aftermath of a negative outcome. Does this represent the brother/sisterhood? That organization and those firefighters did not set out that day to fail. They trained and prepared to the best of their ability. Yet before the full details come out as to what went wrong, social media erupts with negative and even threatening comments that verbally and emotionally attack the responders. How is it fair to judge and criticize their actions until all the details are known and a full report and lessons learned comes from it? What is fair, though, is to offer support for our brothers and sisters during their time of need. That organization is and will go through all the seven stages of grief. As part of the fire service family, we should stand up and support each other. Chances are, once all the details are revealed and the full picture becomes clear, our initial assumptions will prove to be wrong.

We often assume our own way is the best way, and we criticize those who do things differently. Yet the way one department operates versus another can be and should be different based on critical fireground and community factors. For instance, if you are in rural America, your department should operate differently than one located in a major city. You must account for the fact that your staffing, experience, water supply, response time, and so forth are dramatically different. But being different doesn’t make you less of a brother or sister. Gaining perspective allows you to recognize the differences and respect the limitations and decisions of each other’s organizations.

The challenge that faces us all is how do we address the negative impact of social media and highlight the positive information sharing of social media.

For me it comes down to leadership. Leadership drives the values of our organization and the actions of our members. Leaders influence how our members act and react to social media. Developing and enforcing a social media policy in the department that addresses how members conduct themselves online is a start. Ultimately, the buck stops with leadership, and we all need to take an active positive stance that fiercely defends the brother and sisterhood and guides the future of the fire service.

As Chief Brunacini taught us, just “BE NICE.” (Being nice does not mean being weak.) Before making or concurring with negative comments, pause and really think about what you are doing and why you are doing it. If you take a moment to gain perspective, it is likely you will have a change of heart.

Let’s stop bullying and attacking brothers and sisters that might not operate the same as you or look or act the same as you.

Be professional and think before you attack another brother or sister. It is absolutely okay to disagree with tactics and have discussions on the science behind them. Discussions are healthy. Ask “why” to gain perspective and understanding, and keep the conversation respectful. It is when you stop listening and start attacking through social media that it just becomes bullying.

I challenge you to be the bigger person and stop the social media madness! Create positive, engaging discussions so that everyone can better their performance. Lead the future and defend the brother and sisterhood!

Jason Caughey is the fire chief of Laramie County Fire District #2, a combination department in Wyoming with 100 members. He has been in the fire service for over 20 years and previously served for six years as fire chief of Gore Hill Fire Rescue in Montana. He has traveled the word studying fire dynamics and fire behavior and brings this knowledge to combination and volunteer departments through his training presentations.