While driving home from work tonight I had a phone interview (hands free of course) with a fellow National Fire Academy classmate who is trying to finish up his last research paper so he can receive his Executive Fire Officer designation. His topic of choice is how best to integrate social media into the fire service. Fascinating conversation, and it was great to catch up by actually talking instead of interacting via text. He wanted my opinion on benefits, uses and pitfalls of emergency services SM. I hope he was able to keep up with my spouting stream of consciousness. After about 20 minutes he was able to get a word in, and asked me the most important question of all: What are the main obstacles that fire departments face in integrating social media? The question made me pause, which was good because I had sucked out all of the air from my rig.
Given the relatively newness of SM, there are tons of perceived obstacles….hmmm….. But, from a fire service perspective, what is holding us back? I gave him four:
1. Culture - Anyone related to the fire service knows the slogan “100 years of tradition, unimpeded by progress”. But, that is not what I’m talking about when it comes to SM. I think it is more complicated than that. True, we honor tradition, and change often comes slowly. But, SM is different. The pervasiveness of SM is embraced by the fire service whether we know it or not. As firefighters, we crave and seek out instant information to help us do our jobs. We expect – no demand – information ASAP to help us make a problem go away. Yet, don’t expect us to take the time to provide instant information about how we are doing our jobs. We don’t have time for that. Just give us the information we need and get out of our way. Our new firefighters are coming in the door having been weened on MySpace and now proficient with Facebook. BUT, most have little to no exposure to real time SM short messaging beyond SMS on their smartphones. The SMSP (Short Message Social Platform…I think I just made that up) is foreign to most of them. That is a problem that should go away in a few short years.
2. Bureaucracy – ’nuff said…..wait, add records retention laws and/or liability concerns to the mix.
3. Security - I’ve heard emergency management professionals speaking at conferences urging extreme caution (read this “avoid like the plague”) in using social media for emergency communications. Hijacked accounts, spoofed accounts, bad guy intelligence gathering, etc…. are given as reasons why we should avoid using SM for emergencies. REALLY? If a tractor-trailer rig full of methyl-ethyl bad stuff rolls over on my freeway in the middle of my city and starts oozing gobs of goo, I shouldn’t use SM because it may have been a 16 y.o. T2 (Texting Terrorist) who cut the truck driver off?
4. ICS (refer to #2) – Please refer to my previous posts on my blog or my guest posts on Emergency Management Magazines blog site http://www.emergencymgmt.com to gain further perspective here. I’m an ICS disciple, and always will be. In battle – military or emergency services- ICS discipline is critical. With that said, situational awareness, teamwork, improvisation and innovation (with a dab of heroism) help carry the day. ICS is bureaucracy in it’s purest form. Integrating effective SM messaging requires bending – wait…breaking the rules. It’s not rocket science. Give the PIO the game plan, expand their boundaries for releasing info without vetting and get out of their way. BUT, still keep them on a leash….I like those retractable ones…. just when the hounds think they’re free, you yank ‘em back!
I know this is pretty simplistic. But, I really am a pretty simple guy.