Administration and Leadership, Training

Avoid Social Media Nightmares

Issue 5 and Volume 35.

The stories about uncomfortable social media situations continue to pile up on EMS Web sites and in newspapers. A paramedic student, while doing his clinicals at a hospital, posted on his Facebook page that the hospital “sucks.” During another posting, he criticized the nurses at the hospital. A hospital employee informed the hospital’s administrator of the student’s Facebook comments, whereupon the student was asked to leave the hospital and not return.

Be Cautious
In late February, a firefighter/paramedic from Colleton County (S.C.) Fire-Rescue was fired after posting a video on Facebook that showed two cartoon characters having a conversation at a hospital. The agency’s administration alleged the video was designed to depict the local hospital and a doctor at the hospital.

The firefighter/paramedic’s termination letter stated, “This video has created an embarrassing situation for this department, our public image and the cooperative relationship we enjoy with Colleton Medical Center. It reflects poorly on you and Colleton County.”

The emergence of such social media Web sites as Facebook and YouTube, coupled with the proliferation of iPhones, BlackBerrys, camera phones, helmet cams and other small video cameras, has created an atmosphere that can lead to nightmares and legal challenges for any EMS manager.

Multiple videos on YouTube depict firefighters, paramedics and EMTs performing pranks on each other. Just search YouTube for “firefighter,” “firehouse,” “EMS” or “paramedic pranks,” and you’ll find plenty.

One of the more popular types of videos found on YouTube is of firefighters doing the “cinnamon challenge.” During these cinnamon challenges, a firefighter tries to swallow or keep cinnamon in their mouth. They usually end the challenge with a large cloud of cinnamon being expelled from the mouth of the person doing the challenge. This is particularly dangerous during these difficult times, because many fire and EMS departments are being scrutinized and threatened with budget cuts, and taxpayers watching these videos might believe the budget cuts are justified if it appears the employees have plenty of time on their hands.

Another well-known 2009 incident resulted in the firing of an EMT. The EMT from Staten Island, N.Y., responded to a murder scene where a woman was found in her apartment with a hair dryer cord around her neck. Afterward, the EMT took pictures of the woman and posted them on his Facebook page. Would your agency want to have its name associated with this type of behavior?

Create a Policy

The explosion of social media has essentially made each member of your department who has an account an unofficial spokesperson or public information officer (PIO) for your agency.
If you run an emergency service agency and you don’t have a policy about posting on social media Web sites or using cameras and phones on the job, I strongly suggest you develop one.

It would be difficult for an EMS manager to discipline someone without a policy in place. To avoid establishing an unauthorized information source, your policy should prohibit employees from naming your agency on any social media Web site. The policy should also restrict the posting of images or videos of your department, employees and patients on the Internet.

Utilize the Good

On the other hand, social media Web sites are great for reaching out to your community. According to Facebook, there are more than 400 million registered users, and more than 50% log on every day.1

With these statistics, you should take advantage of these tools and use them to your benefit. Many EMS agencies already have their own Facebook pages where they post pictures, information about training events and public meetings, and other important information for the public and employees.

The Los Angeles City Fire Department PIO used Twitter during the devastating 2008 wildland fires to provide citizens and the media with instantaneous updates. They constantly posted with the latest events, including when areas were clear and people could return back to their homes.


Social media is rapidly becoming the norm in communication and can be a double-edged sword. Use by staff can either be problematic for EMS managers or helpful to the organization if used properly. Develop clear and concise guidelines for your employees in this new era of communications. This action will certainly prevent future problems. JEMS

1. Facebook.

This article originally appeared in May 2010 JEMS as Social Media Dilemmas:
One employee’s public opinion could tarnish your agency’s image.