Social media and social networking can be an incredible and powerful tool for anyone, especially the future firefighter. When I was testing to become a firefighter in the early 1990s (seems like yesterday, time does fly…), I did not have the luxury of social media as a tool to assist me with getting hired. For that matter, I also did not have to worry about social media keeping me from becoming a firefighter for a number of reasons that I want to share with anyone who uses social media and wants to become a firefighter. I used to be a little paranoid about social media after hearing some horror stories about people getting in trouble at work because of their inappropriate use of social media, as well as some former policies our fire department had in place to prevent personnel from doing inappropriate things on social media that in turn could damage the excellent reputation of the fire department and the fire service.
What I ended up doing was something that was actually the wrong thing to do in hindsight: I ended up not wanting anything to do with social media, and I failed to properly educate myself on the different forms including the limitations and capabilities of each brand of social media, and even the pros and cons of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Google Plus or Instagram.
When I was a captain and an aspiring chief officer, a smart chief officer once told me that even if I didn’t use those social media or networking tools, as a chief officer, I at least needed to be aware of each of the social media networks, so I can have an educated conversation with my crews, and not look like a clueless idiot who was living in the past and not progressing into the future. After a change in fire chiefs and our new chief being more open to the various social media networks, I decided it was time to actually explore what each had to offer and see how I could use them to my advantage. I’ve always been an information junkie, and a little research showed me how powerful Twitter and Facebook could be, for a number of reasons. I created my accounts and started learning as much as I could about both, including how each worked, how to properly use each, as well as proper etiquette when sending out information. I tried to start out slowly, and not do anything stupid I would eventually regret. One of the best things I tried to do was learn from the mistakes of others, as well as the positive things of others in how they send messages, what they post, what they reply to, how they reply, just to name a few.
To assist the future firefighter with not doing something stupid, and with getting hired as a firefighter, below are five reasons social media keeps you from getting hired:
1. Inappropriate posts on your social media accounts – Like it or not, even if you allow only your friends to see your posts, the posts you make may still be subject to scrutiny or to others being offended. If you have pictures that you would be embarrassed to show your parents or grandparents, then they may not be appropriate for social media. If you have pictures or comments that associate you with drugs, alcohol, foul language, extreme political views, excessive partying, sexual activities and any other behavior that could be considered offensive and/or inappropriate, not to mention unprofessional or immature, then you may be scaring off potential employers should they obtain access to your social media account, either through a casual or accidental search, or as shared by someone else that is aware of your desire to work there. Learn to keep your emotions in check, and not fly off the handle or demonstrate anger management issues while on social media. We have all seen postings that make you wonder what the person was thinking or doing when they made the post. Were they drunk? Did they not realize the possible implications or perceptions of what they were going to post? As we all have learned, the Internet is pretty much forever and is also very unforgiving. Consider it the gift that keeps on giving and giving and giving.
2. You spend so much time on social media, you forget what it’s like to have human contact – Some of you may not get what I’m talking about because you are so entrenched in social media that you have forgotten what it’s like to pick up the phone to talk to someone, or better yet, what it’s like to actually have a one-on-one, face-to-face conversation. That’s one of the downfalls of social media, the ability to really get out of touch with those two key forms of personal communication. I already hear a number of conversations about what our world will look like 10 or 20 years from now when everyone is so used to communicating with others via their smart phone, as opposed to face-to-face.
3. You spend so much time on social media you don’t take the time to get your necessary things completed in a timely manner – I remember hearing from someone how much one could waste their day away on social media. I completely get it and see how addicting it can be. I can also see how it can easily distract you and if you don’t prioritize your life and the necessary things you need to do in regards to your career development, such as applying for jobs, performing your physical fitness routine, practicing your oral interview skills, and/or researching fire departments in person by visiting stations. I can see how you miss out on a number of opportunities that could have benefited you or are required of you. For example, I remember one of our volunteer firefighters, who was trying to become a full-time firefighter, was way behind on his monthly training assignments, and was missing a lot of the required drills and/or emergency responses. I realize everyone is busy and has a life outside of the fire service; I am happy for people that have both away from the fire service as I think it makes them balanced. However, this one volunteer was always behind and every time I would attempt to follow-up with him to have him complete the outstanding assignments as soon as possible or to start showing his face around the department more (especially if he wanted to get hired full time), he would always tell me something to the effect of how busy he was and he couldn’t find the time to do what we asked of him. The main reason this chapped me was that whenever I logged onto Facebook, I would coincidentally come across his various posts. Hanging out with his girlfriend or friends on vacation, at the restaurant, at the bar, at the ball game, in the backyard, pretty much anywhere and everywhere. One could easily assume this firefighter had a great social life and was living life to the fullest. I’m good with that. What I’m not good with is him having all the time in the world to have fun and to then post it on Facebook, and then have the audacity to tell me he doesn’t have time to get the few priorities we ask of him done in a timely manner. If he only put the same amount of effort into being a volunteer firefighter as he did on social media, he just may have found himself a full-time position; something he is still apparently attempting to find to no avail.
4. Your emails and other forms of official written communication look the same as your text messages – Since many do not have the edit feature in place to type emails with proper grammar, spelling and sentence structure (as opposed to typing an email like they would a text message), I see this being a big problem in how they are perceived or received by others. I don’t believe social media is helping people with their written communication skills; it’s actually hurting them. I value and appreciate written communication skills. I try to type an email the same as I would type an official written communication document such as a memo, a research paper, an article (like this one) I would send to Firehouse for consideration to be published into their monthly magazine version or website, or even a staff report. Out of good (not bad) habits, I even try to type text messages the same as I would an official written communication document as mentioned above. Part of my problem is it’s hard for me to be brief, part of my problem is I don’t want to get bad habits that inadvertently carry over to official written communications, and part of my problem is I just can’t get myself to grips of communicating in such an abbreviated manner. The sad part about this is that I receive a fair number of emails from people, and I’ve received a fair number of reports from students, that look like text messages, full of abbreviations and other items that are meant for a brief text message or even Twitter post.
5. Not taking the plunge into social media – After reading the above mentioned information, you may be thinking, “Why the heck would I even want to engage in social media if it’s going to keep me from getting hired as a firefighter?” Well, engaging inappropriately in social media is almost just as bad as not being involved with social media in the first place. Why? For a few reasons: you can network and build and maintain positive working relationships with other future firefighters as well as current fire service professionals who may assist you in reaching your career goal. You may be able to locate fire department employment opportunities or locate volunteer opportunities to give back to your community and be able to put on your resume. You will be able to research the fire service and the various fire departments you may be applying for, and most importantly, you will be able to stay on top of the fire service, so you have a finger on the pulse of what is going on and as a bonus, you’ll obtain timely and up-to-date information you can share with the oral board during your next testing process.
Realize the above mentioned items are just my opinion, based on my experiences. What works for me may not work for you, or vice versa. I’ll let you make the choice of whether to use or not use social media. If you choose not to use social media, just realize the number of things that you may be missing out on in your pursuit of becoming a firefighter. If you do choose to use social media, crawl before you walk, learn as much as you can about the social media networks you are going to get involved with, and then use them to the best of your ability and make the most out of them, time permitting. Knowledge and information is power; use as many tools as you can research and stay to stay up-to-date with your fire service, as well as the other future and current fire service professionals who are also using social media for the right reasons.
STEVE PRZIBOROWSKI, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, has over 20 years of fire service experience, currently serving as a deputy chief for the Santa Clara County Fire Department. He is also an instructor for the Fire Technology Program at Chabot College in Hayward, CA, and is a former president of the Northern California Training Officers Association. Steve was named the 2008 California Fire Instructor of the Year. He has earned a master's degree in Emergency Services Administration, a bachelor's degree in Criminal Justice, and an associate's degree in Fire Technology. Steve has completed the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy, and received Chief Fire Officer Designation through the Commission on Professional Credentialing. He is a regular speaker and presenter at fire service events and conferences across the country and recently published three books: How to Excel at Fire Department Promotional Exams, Reach for the Firefighter Badge, and The Future Firefighter's Preparation Guide, all of which are available on his websites: www.chabotfire.com and www.code3firetraining.com.
See Steve Live at Firehouse World: Steve Prziborowski will be co-presenting "The Future Firefighter Experience" for students during Firehouse World in San Diego, Jan. 25-29. He will also be presenting "Ten Commandments of a Great Company Officer" and "Here’s The Badge – Don’t Screw It Up!" Find out more at FirehouseWorld.com.