EMS Insights From VFIS: Social Media Dangers and Policy

EMS Insights From VFIS: Social Media Dangers and Policy

What do an FDNY EMT, a paramedic from Orlando, the head of the Michigan State Police, and a former firefighter in Mississippi have in common? They all made headlines recently for things they posted or shared on social media.

With more than 81% of Americans managing some sort of social media profile, it is critical to remember that anything published on sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., can be viewed and shared by many who were not originally intended to see it.1 From cached pages, screenshots, shares, etc., even after something is deleted from social media, it’s never really gone.

The emergency-services industry is not immune to criticism over the social media use of members and organizations and the photos and videos posted on their sites. From breaches of confidential information to inappropriate, offensive, unprofessional, disparaging, defamatory, discriminatory, and harassing content, emergency service organizations (ESOs) must be cautious and aware of what is posted on social media, on behalf of both their members and themselves.

The Good: Social Media’s Important Role

Though social media missteps have led some emergency services members to become the subject of controversy and news coverage, there are real benefits to being active on these platforms.

Social media can be a great way for your organization to connect with community members and share important and educational information. You can create posts about events your ESO is holding or participating in, keep your community up to date on happenings in your area, and share tips to help keep your neighbors safe around the holidays.

Recruiting new members can also be done more efficiently through your organization’s and members’ social media channels. Social media enables you to quickly share videos and images with prospective members and discuss your current members’ experiences with your organization, impact on the community, upcoming events, and other important information. Posting frequently and keeping your content updated will encourage shares, likes, and conversations among your ESO and followers.

The Bad: Lack of Privacy

One misconception surrounding social media use is people’s expectation of privacy or confidentiality when their content (text, pictures, or videos) is distributed online. Those who post videos on YouTube, for example, are essentially the owners of their own international online distribution center—a virtual television station. An ESO member’s social media content could be circulated for the world to see even if that isn’t their intention. An e-mail, Facebook post, photograph, blog, or video can quickly be passed along to vast numbers of people. If this content includes private information about the ESO, a patient, or a member, it could lead to a breach of confidentiality or even a HIPAA violation, possibly resulting in a court appearance in addition to unflattering news headlines.

Individuals can attempt to limit public access to their social media sites and communications, but these communications still frequently land in the hands of unintended recipients. Inappropriate, offensive, and personal communications often are called to the attention of ESO leaders who are left to determine what actions, if any, should be taken against the authors of their content.

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The Policies: How to Create One

A great way to help protect your organization and members is to create a policy that doesn’t ban members’ social media usage but instead clearly addresses what is appropriate and expected from members and the organization. While policy language specific to using social media or networking can be woven into a policy on other electronic communications, ESOs can develop stand-alone social media policies as well. A policy should address:2

  • Harassment, discrimination, retaliation, and other behavior that may be considered inappropriate, offensive, or intimidating;
  • Personal social media use during working hours, which can include inappropriate use of ESO time and equipment or behavior that is otherwise detrimental to productivity, morale, work culture, and the mission of the ESO.
  • Unbecoming conduct. ESOs rely heavily on public trust in the integrity and professionalism of their members, so it’s important that the policy allows discipline for behavior, on- or off-duty, that reflects these qualities poorly;
  • Breaches of confidentiality or unauthorized communications regarding private business-related information. This may include financial information, operational data, sensitive personnel matters, and even photos and videos taken at emergency scenes;
  • Misuse or misrepresentation of the ESO’s name or business, including copyright and trademark laws and protections.

Members should receive and sign a form acknowledging their understanding of the policy. This should include details on the ESO’s ability to monitor their usage while on duty, within ESO facilities, or while engaging in ESO-related activities.

In addition to the policy, be sure to provide training for members on social networking and other electronic communications systems that explains the parameters and answers any questions. Straightforward periodic training can help members understand that the ESO is not trying to play “big brother” but rather regulate social media use that may be detrimental to the organization and its members. Remember that all members, from new recruits to leaders, should practice these policies and participate in training.

The Takeaway

While social media can help your organization educate and interact with the community and recruit new members, it’s important to consider best practices and policies before posting online. It’s unrealistic to implement a policy that completely bans members’ use of social media, but clearly defining what is appropriate content for your organization and members can help keep you and your organization in good graces with your community and online followers. Emergency-services members are held to a higher standard, and their use of social media should serve to build public trust without risk of diminishing the organization’s reputation.


1. Statista. Percentage of U.S. population with a social medial profile from 2008 to 2017, https://www.statista.com/statistics/273476.

2. VFIS Risk Communique. Social Media—Management Liability/Employment Practices Risk Management, http://vfis.com/Portals/vfis/documents/Communiques/Social-Media-VFIS.pdf.

Justin Eberly, BS, EMT, EMS-I, CDEI, is an education and training specialist for VFIS. He is responsible for the national delivery of educational and training programs, curriculum development, and information analysis. He is an active EMT in Cumberland County, Pa., and serves in a variety of local emergency management roles, including training officer.



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