Community Risk Reduction: To Post or Not to Post: A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words

Jan. 9, 2023
Daniel Byrne, conceding the importance of respecting people's privacy in regard to posting images from emergency scenes, still urges the use of photos on social media.

For departments that have a social media presence, the question often is asked, should photographs of emergency scenes be posted on their social media pages? When it comes to CRR, “community” and “risk” represent the first two letters, and if a department’s community doesn’t perceive any risk or the consequences of those risks, how successful can a department expect its CRR program to be?

In the Four E’s to fire prevention, the first “E” is education, which leads to the other three (engineering, enforcement and emergency response), but, again, if a community doesn’t perceive a problem, what’s the education and engineering for? Furthermore, in America, enforcement without a perceived problem and subsequent good won’t go over well with citizens.

The very basis of any CRR or prevention program is the identification of risks. Although data might point clearly to the risks, that doesn’t mean that a community, including its government leaders, shares the department’s concerns or understands the realities of failing to address them.

Utilizing social media to provide visuals and narratives of these risks that are so close to home—along with their effects—can leave a lasting impression that’s more likely to prime the viewer for the needed changes in behavior (education), to support changes to the physical environment to reduce risks (engineering/enforcement), and/or to support budgetary considerations for needed resources to quickly and effectively mitigate the risks (emergency response).

Some departments choose not to post emergency scene photos for fear of potential HIPAA violations or other privacy concerns. Many of these departments honorably feel that posting emergency scene photos publicizes someone’s tragedy. I fully respect that. I also disagree. Posting such photos, particularly with the goal of awareness and education to reduce risk and another tragedy, can be done in a respectful manner that benefits all.

Author’s note: Any photos that are selected for social media posting should be picked based on their capability to inform and/or educate, not for bravado or shock or their capability to cause fright or alarm. Potential photos should be identified based on their ambiguity, and they should be examined carefully for HIPAA or other privacy information.

Engagement with today’s community

A significant portion of today’s society lives in the metaverse, and much of the remainder depends substantially on the internet. More and more people get their news online, shop online, and get their entertainment and learning online rather than engage in human interaction. Brains are being rewired for quick snapshots and immediate gratification rather than being suited to read long narratives or safety material.

Properly using social media to communicate is a must for today’s fire departments. It permits them to stay engaged with their community, to educate, to get out their story and to reduce risks.

Every department understands the concept of a teachable moment, either from a CRR or prevention angle or from a political angle.

From the CRR or prevention angle, to an extent unlike any other medium, photos allow a department to affect an audience regarding the importance of everything from home and vehicle safety to the need for a new policy or for a change to an existing policy. Photos make the matter real and personal.

From the political angle, photos of emergency scenes can demonstrate to community leaders and lawmakers what resources and/or policies are needed and how they should be implemented or deployed. This is an often-overlooked operational benefit of CRR.

Although scene photos often emerge after the event, we know that the risks to people don’t end when fire vehicles leave the scene and that a new spectrum of hazards might begin for those who were affected. An important part to CRR—and the end goal of prevention—is to help to bring about a quick and efficient recovery. This allows people to get back on their feet and helps to reduce mental and financial effects. Posting emergency scene photos can and has generated outpourings of support from the community, asking how they can help or donate services to those who are affected. Furthermore, affected families have reached out through a fire department’s social media to ask for help or for certain supplies and services, and those agencies coordinated that relief. Once, after posting daily photos of a tornado’s aftermath, not only was a department able to help to coordinate and obtain needed donations, such as food, water and clothing, but that agency was contacted by a member of the community through the department’s social media to donate a mobile home to a family who lost theirs.

Don’t forget your firefighters

Although reducing risks also reduces emergency response, which reduces risks to firefighters, don’t forget mental health. Emergency scenes can have a deep effect on responders. Once the emergency is mitigated, crews clear the scene and return to service without knowing how those who were involved or their families are doing.

It isn’t uncommon for agencies that use photos on their social media to receive heartfelt thank-you’s from the individuals or families who were involved and even to be kept posted on individuals’ or families’ status.

For example, one department that extricated a driver from a heavily damaged vehicle who wasn’t expected to survive received through its social media a photo of that individual standing with his daughter just before Christmas, along with appreciation for saving his life.

Even in circumstances when the end result wasn’t what was hoped for, family members have reached out to thank responders for being there and for all of the care and professionalism that they provided.

More tangible than data

Making significant changes, whether to one’s personal life or to support a change to one’s community’s policies, requires a deep and solid belief that those changes must be made and will provide the benefit of increasing safety and quality of life, if not in fact saving a life. Today’s media is filled with national and global threats and risks that detract attention away from those that are immediate and real, and that’s the challenge for today’s CRR and prevention personnel. Social media posts that include photos are another way to continually bring home local risk awareness to local people, and they establish the base upon which to grow and receive support for programs.

CRR and prevention programs involve everything from identifying and effectively communicating risks, to the prevention and mitigation of those risks, to supporting efficient response and recovery. All of this involves the collection and analysis of data and then the application of resources to address the data. However, no matter how compelling to fire and EMS services, data are just numbers to civilians. As firefighters, we know the stories behind that data, the pain, the suffering, the loss. There is no way to effectively articulate that. For those numbers to have the same effect on those who will benefit from the data as the data have on those who compiled it, citizens must experience it. Emergency scene photos provide thousands of words of that experience.

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