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Is There a Place for Social Media in Public Safety?

Author: Kevin Pagenkop, ENP

Date: 2013-03-12
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Social Connection. Technology opens strange, new world

As Emergency Telecommunicators, we’re trained from day one to value customer service and teamwork. Then we’re handed headsets and spend the rest of our careers tethered to phones and radios that often connect us to emotional callers or complaining responders. These stressors add up and have a cumulative effect on our mental, and often physical, wellbeing. Stress relief is an important part of our health but how we choose to “blow off steam” often affects our jobs as well. Yelling at the caller is poor customer service. Taking frustrations out on your responders is not conducive to good teamwork. Often, dispatcher turns on dispatcher and center morale becomes an issue. As we’re now in the digital age, public safety professionals are increasingly utilizing the Internet and social media to air their grievances, post complaints, and in general, vent their frustrations.

Is this an appropriate way to de-stress?

 

Considerations

The Internet is public. Even when comments or posts are sent directly to a specific distribution group or only shared with “friends” there is nothing stopping these individuals from forwarding, re-posting, or sharing with others. There is nothing more embarrassing than complaining about a co-worker (or your boss) only to have them eventually receive and read your comments.

Venting through a keyboard is anonymous. Anonymity factors highly in the tone and content of messages. Consider a disagreement or an argument with your officers, firefighters, or EMTs. Is the issue addressed differently face-to-face than it is over a radio? Often, it is our inner-voice that winds up punching the keys and providing an outlet for our subconscious. As a result, a casual complaint or professional observation might come across as a rant or personal attack.

Consider privacy issues. Venting about incidents and callers can be healthy, but when posted on-line, we must consider the implications of violating protected health or patient information. In addition to external privacy issues, we’ve seen photos posted online of dispatchers clowning or sleeping at their workstations? Circulating these photos can be damaging to that employee as well as to the agency and Public Safety as a whole. Is that how we want to portray our positions and jobs to the general public?

Mobile devices provide instant access to social media. Continually updating your status or routinely checking your accounts can affect your ability to monitor radio traffic or answer phones. In some cases, social media becomes an addiction that affects judgment in terms of prioritizing responsibilities.

Blasting anyone or anything related to your job is a hot issue. On the one hand, comments posted through the employee’s personal accounts or applications and should be protected as “free speech.” On the other hand, most employers have polices clearly defining what can, and should, be shared, posted, or blogged.

Regardless of legal ramifications, slamming an employer or co-workers creates an uncomfortable work environment - which has the opposite effect of relieving stress and resolving conflict. Even if your current employer does not address the content of social media, future employers might. Many employers include some form of Internet content review in their background investigations.

Forethought (or proofreading) must be applied prior to publishing to the world. Before having a confrontational conversation, or writing an angry letter, follow the sound advice to let the issue rest for a few hours or days before “shooting from the hip” and acting out of anger or frustration. Immediately venting or posting while upset often over-values the emotion rather than the message and can create larger problems out of minor issues.

 

Value

There is value in social media.

Social media lets us connect to a larger audience and provides an opportunity to interact with like-minded individuals who share the same experiences, and are more objective or compassionate. Engaging in positive exchange with other public safety professionals is a great way to “recharge your battery.” Networking also provides an opportunity to exchange phone numbers or addresses.

An agency can also use social media for the public’s good. In addition to posting practical information – such as road closings and storm warnings – an agency can show a friendlier side of doing business through Facebook and other social media outlets.

Balancing some considerations with value, many of the issues and problems that arise are based upon how the technology is used rather than the fact that it is being used at all. Public Safety will continue its journey into the next generation of the digital age. It is up to us to determine what role, if any, social Internet applications should have.

 

This guest column was originally published in the Jan/Feb issue of NAED Journal, and is used with permission of the National Academies of Emergency Dispatch.

Supervising the Training and Quality Assurance Department at a Fire and EMS Communications Center in Central California, Kevin Pagenkop successfully restructured the curriculum and quality processes which led to continued Accreditation as a Center of Excellence. With a decade in emergency telecommunications, Kevin is a frequent contributor to a number of EMS publications, a local and national conference speaker, an ENP, and an ED-Q Instructor.  He is passionate about improving the standards and training required of all emergency dispatchers.

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