EMS Insider

Leadership in the Digital Age

Journalist & first aid squad chief gives tips for managers going electronic

The digital age in which we live is littered with dinosaurs, many in leadership positions. Add the lightning speed with which changes occur and even the leaders who manage via smartphones, iPads and tablets have trouble keeping up with a constantly evolving digital landscape. Yet those same leaders are expected to not only navigate this shifting virtual world, but to also regulate it within the confines of the workplace.


For many, the mere thought provokes real nightmares. That doesn’t have to be the case, says Atlantic Highlands (N.J.) First Aid and Safety Squad Chief and journalist Richard Huff, EMT-B. He recommends a number of ways to manage digital media and find ways to harness its remarkable power.


Twitter and Facebook have already proven to be valuable communication tools during natural disasters. During Hurricane Irene and the East Coast earthquake this past summer, citizens used social media to learn about the disaster in real time and communicate with family outside of the disaster area. An American Red Cross application even helped people find shelter. “In some ways, it’s become your news radio,” Huff says. In fact, a recent Red Cross study reported that 80% of the citizens said first responders should be monitoring social media use in order to use the information to mobilize resources.

The benefits of social media

Huff says social media can also be used to enhance brand awareness. It can be used to enhance brand awareness among the public and personnel, schedule programs and serve as a source of news and education. Some agencies have effectively used Twitter as a tool to interact with their staff, and interact with the public and the news media, releasing timely information about incidents, CPR classes, awards and saves.


Emergency Twitter feeds are hugely popular. Community and personnel alike follow these feeds. “It’s a community gathering of information,” Huff says.


The technology can also be used as a valuable teaching tool for personnel. Classes can be created in-house and accessed at any time. “You are now putting that knowledge into their hands,” he says. There are CPR applications for the iPhone and iPad. Even EMS field guides are available electronically. And using an applications maker, an agency can create its own app. “It’s not elaborate, but it’s easy,” Huff says.


Podcasts, a series of digital media files (either audio or video) that are released episodically and often downloaded through web syndication, can also be used to provide continuing education. Once downloaded, personnel can listen to the podcast at their convenience.


News, current topics, hot-button issues and educational opportunities are available from such national EMS sources as the EMS Garage (www.emsgarage.com), a weekly podcast produced for EMS professionals by EMS professionals. Huff also recommends Medicast.com (www.medicast.com) for free audio study aids.


The technology is available for any agency to make its own podcasts. This is an especially effective way to update personnel regarding changes to procedures or polices.


New products are constantly being introduced using current technology. Two such products (Firetextresponse.com and Iamresponding.com) allow responders to touch a key on their telephone to indicate they’re responding to a call. The system automatically posts who is responding and from where they are responding. Managers can monitor the password-protected system from any Internet-connected computer or mobile phone. The product is especially valuable to volunteer departments where the chief can see at a glance which resources are available and whether mutual aid is needed, even if he or she is miles away from the incident.


Huff expects that, in the near future, more agencies will replace tough books in the field with iPads and smartphones. He also believes that Skype, a software application that allows users to make free voice, video calls and chats over the Internet, may provide a new method for communicating with personnel in remote locations.

The risks of social media

And yet, what seems like a good idea can go so very wrong. It only takes a quick glance at the headlines to see that inappropriate information sometimes gets released and more than a few responders have lost their jobs because of it. What began as a way to interact with the public and encourage goodwill can quickly become a liability without proper policies and oversight.


Huff notes that the younger generation has grown up saying and doing anything online. Years of watching reality TV has further eroded a social filter that the older generation often takes for granted.


“Stuff you might have kept to yourself is now online,” he says. To make matters even worse, many Internet sites allow anonymous posts, permitting personnel to say things they might not share if they had to include their name. Whether they discuss patient information or an angry rant, wise leaders set expectations before there’s a public incident.


Further complicating matters for managers is that most ambulances are mobile hotspots. During downtimes, most personnel can be found on their phones, tablets or laptops, making it easier and quicker than ever to post information and attitudes onto the Internet.


To help know what is being posted, Huff recommends that managers designate someone on the inside to oversee online operations. It can provide important insight into the overall health of the organization That can be tricky for some departments where access is denied at the workplace. The problem, Huff notes, is that there can be occasional slips. “Once information is out there, you can’t get it back,” he says.


Then there is the issue of personal freedoms. “You will need to check with legal,” Huff says. Some agencies have used anti-harassment policies or core values as the basis for their online policy. The key is to set the tone for the behavior.

Electronic leadership

Huff believes leaders need to be scouring the Internet for best practices—something most leaders used to do only at conferences. “If you are leading an organization and you aren’t online looking for [tips], you aren’t leading,” he says. He provides several suggestions for how leaders might join the digital media community.


Get on Twitter: The chief or head of the department should be on Twitter, Huff says. You can have thousands of followers. Unlike Facebook, it is not personal. Messages are quick and easy, no more than 140 characters.


Join EMS-specific community groups and forums: The digital platform is a place for people with similar goals, tastes and desires to gather. You can learn about issues that may impact your organization, share ideas and problems or search for grants and statistical information. Good sites include JEMS Connect, EMT City, EMS1 Connect and Firehouse.com.


Sign up for free digital newsletters: JEMS and EMS World both offer e-mail newsletters with links to current news stories. It’s just the headlines, so it can be scanned in a few minutes.


Join Facebook: This allows you to interact with people outside of the EMS community. There are some rules, though. Most experts discourage managers from “friending” employees.


Blog: Be sure to read blogs. “There are some really great ones,” Huff says. He admits that some people use blogs just to vent, but there are some good ones out there. As a leader, you can also create your own. Use it as a place to talk with personnel or the community and direct people to links.


When posting, Huff says, be transparent. Do not post anonymously. Always think before posting. Never disclose internal squabbles. Public disclosure only jeopardizes an organization. Do try to create something of value. Finally, he says that the key to any social media is that once you start, you must keep it up.