Social Media and Public Safety


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 the World, Unite! The Challenges and Opportunities of Social Media." Business Horizons, 2010.)

The proliferation of social media is also occurring in public safety organizations, including a large segment of their respective personnel (see the Fire Service Technology articles in the February issue of Firehouse®). Among some of the most popular social media applications are Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, LinkedIn, Plaxo, YouTube, blogs and texting. The uniqueness of these programs is that they link people to people, people to organizations, and organizations to organizations. Social media provide value by letting users generate content and/or to subscribe and have information updates pushed to them instantaneously and in real time to computers and mobile devices.

Facebook, the most popular social media program presently, reported in 2010 that it had more than 500 million active users; 50% of active users log on in a given day, with an average of 130 friends; people spend more than 700 billion minutes per month on Facebook; and there are more than 70 language translations. According to Web Strategy, in 2010, MySpace had 57 million subscribers, LinkedIn 60 million and Twitter more than 105 million.

Read Write Web reported that 2010 statistics show that a mobile phone is a better platform for social networking than a personal computer because of its mobility and connectivity. The continued rise in the indoctrination of mobile devices will further influence the expansion of social media.

The subscriber statistics and public safety social media uses validate that this is a valuable and effective way to communicate with a wide range of the population, but not necessarily with every segment.

Social Media's Value

Communication with the public is a signature accomplishment for most public safety and emergency management organizations. Effective communication in the way of fire safety messages, preparedness information and updates, weather alerts/warnings, evacuation instructions, health and wellness messages, and crime information are some of the ways public safety uses social media today. The Los Angeles, CA, Fire Department was recognized as an early adopter of social media by using Facebook and Twitter to provide real-time information to inform and educate citizens; specifically about wildfires and other major disasters. Many public safety organizations worldwide are now using a variety of social media. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Craig Fugate regularly sends out informative "tweets" (text messages) to those who choose to "follow" him on Twitter.

Social media also let public safety organizations "tell their story" to the public through daily updates and departmental activities. It has become a great marketing tool and another way to connect with the community. YouTube has demonstrated itself as a valuable way of sharing incident and/or training video footage and is being used regularly as a training/education medium for public safety organizations and agencies. A promising use of social media is through "crowd sourcing." In other words, organizations can publish a community need to a large group of people (crowd) and link with respective volunteers. This could be a huge benefit on a daily basis or during a catastrophic event.

Activity can also be monitored during and following an event through social media feeds. Twitter can easily be used to identify and monitor "trends" and has been used by the public safety community to see activity levels, access information on the magnitude of an event, and even access photos and videos of the event.

The Dangers

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

    1. Identify what is appropriate while on duty or exercising duties
    2. Ensure the accuracy of information
    3. Identify personnel who are authorized to publish information to the public
    4. 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."

CHARLES WERNER, CFO, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 34-year veteran of the fire service and chief of the Charlottesville, VA, Fire Department. He serves on the Virginia Statewide Interoperability Executive Committee, Virginia Secure Commonwealth Panel, National Public Safety Telecommunications Council Governing Board and IAFC Communications Committee. Werner is chair of the IAFC Technology Council, first vice president of the Virginia Fire Chiefs Association and chair of the DHS SAFECOM Executive Committee. He recently was appointed to the FCC's new Emergency Interoperability Response Council (ERIC) Public Safety Advisory Council.