Social Media and Public Safety

Social media let public safety organizations quickly disseminate vital information to the public.

Social media have taken the world by storm. Andreas Kaplan and Michael Haenlein define social media as “a group of Internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0, which allows the creation and exchange of user-generated content.” (“Users of...

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While social media can be used in a positive way, there are associated dangers and responsibilities that organizations and their respective personnel must recognize and exercise. There are a number of documented situations where social media were used inappropriately by personnel, either while on duty or while otherwise exercising duties as a member of a public safety organization. These dangers involve legal and privacy laws as well as moral issues.

There are increasing numbers of incidents where responders are being suspended, fired and/or removed for publishing sensitive information, inappropriate and revealing photos from an incident scene, capturing inappropriate behavior by department personnel or violating privacy laws like the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) privacy rule. Violating laws and privacy rules also create liability issues for the individual and the organization.

YouTube also has its downside when inappropriate videos are uploaded. There are scores of videos that capture inappropriate behavior of personnel, unsafe practices and/or illegal activities. Extreme cases may result in civil and/or criminal lawsuits.

Personnel must also be aware that their actions are being documented by the public at large and they must be diligent in presenting a professional and positive image at all times. Often, images and/or videos are published in real time while units are still operating at an incident scene. Shortly thereafter, these videos are being broadcast over national news networks.



To fully appreciate and exploit the potential of social media, organizations must understand the features of each, know the target audience, identify those social media applications that best suit the organization’s mission and develop an implementation strategy that addresses associated policies and resources. While it is impossible to define a policy that addresses every type of social media application, here are a few tips for proper and effective use of social media:

  • 1. Define goals and objectives
  • 2. Identify your target audience
  • 3. Identify the social media applications that are best to accomplish your goals and objectives
  • 4. Identify necessary resources (funding, hardware, software and people)
  • 5. Develop policies associated with the use of social media
  • a. Identify what is appropriate while on duty or exercising duties
  • b. Ensure the accuracy of information
  • c. Identify personnel who are authorized to publish information to the public
  • d. The consequences if department social media policies are violated
  • 6. Educate personnel on the policies, dangers and consequences of social media
  • 7. Develop an implementation strategy
  • 8. Regularly review and adjust department social media policies as needed and appropriate
  • 9. Regularly reinforce the behavior of personnel while on-duty or while conducting official business of the organization



In one way or another, social media have become integral parts of our daily lives. It is crucial that all organizations and their respective members are aware of the good and bad aspects of social media. Organizations that do not educate and inform their members about social media are likely to go “from heroes to zeroes.”