Lately, our editorial staff has become a lot more active on Facebook. At first, I wasn’t crazy about the idea, because the concept seems foreign to me. I’m all for social networking, but I’m admittedly “old school” and prefer to do so by actually talking to the other person. But, as Curt Varone pointed out at the Fire Department Instructors Conference in Indianapolis last spring, social networking is here to stay.

Varone is a retired deputy fire chief and attorney who writes the Fire Law blog. A light bulb recently went on as a result of all of the social networking that I’ve been doing, and I started to leaf through my notes from the FDIC session that Varone led on the hottest legal topics afflicting the fire service. He spent a lot of time talking about social networking. He quoted a National Labor Relations Board attorney, who called Facebook “the new water cooler.”

“Facebook is where all the gripes and gossip takes place,” Varone said.

During the session, Varone cited numerous instances where social-networking activity landed departments and their personnel in a lot of hot water. Here are a few:

  • A paramedic responded to a rape and treated the victim. Three weeks later, he allegedly wrote about the incident on MySpace and gave some pretty specific details that allowed news media to identify the victim. That wasn’t the end of it. The media went to the victim’s home and knocked on her door. She wasn’t pleased and sued both the paramedic and the department.
  • Another paramedic was dispatched to the scene of a murder. At the scene, the paramedic allegedly took a photo that he posted to Facebook about six weeks later. Again, the media got wind of this and interviewed the victim’s parents, who were quite distraught. The paramedic was fired, lost his EMT license and eventually pleaded guilty to official misconduct charges, though he avoided jail time.
  • At the scene of a car accident that took the life of a young mother of two children, a paramedic allegedly used his cell-phone camera to capture about 30 seconds of video of the victim. The footage contained some close-up, graphic images of the head trauma suffered by the victim, who had lost control of her car and crashed into some trees. The family sued.

In the last instance, the paramedic didn’t post the video to any social-networking sites but did share it with a few friends and colleagues. That’s what landed him in hot water. Eventually, the video was shared in an ever-widening circle. The moral of the story, according to Varone, is that once something makes it to the Internet, you’ve lost all control over what happens to it next.

“Firefighters taking pictures at the scene isn’t anything new. What is new is that they’re no longer using film, which was a limiting factor in terms of distribution,” Varone said. “This is a problem that was created by technology.”

Though Varone only cited instances that involved fire departments and their personnel for obvious reasons, it is safe to say that the problems created by digital and social media affect police departments in a similar manner.

There are other problems with digital media. Sometimes, official images taken at the scene are released without proper authorization. That can be embarrassing for a department; what is worse is that it can cause some legal problems, because the images might be evidence in a criminal or civil proceeding. Failing to secure that evidence might become an issue, if the case makes it into court.

As a result, Varone strongly urges departments to establish policies that address social media and digital images, if they don’t already exist. Here are a few tips he shared for creating such policies:

  • Policy statements should make clear that all images taken by on-duty personnel are the property of the department.
  • Authorized photographers should be identified by the chief and use only department-issued cameras. Only authorized photographers should take images at an incident.
  • Images should be inventoried and archived in a secure location on the department’s server. Once they’re archived, they should be deleted from the camera. This should be done as soon as feasible — ideally, as soon as the crew returns to the station, but at least by the end of the shift.
  • The use of titles, department logos, department-owned images, or identification as a member of the department that creates an impression that the member is a spokesperson for the department should be prohibited.
  • Any social-media policy should address digital images — even if the department has a digital media policy in place.
  • While social-media policies are intended to create necessary boundaries, it is important that they are written in a manner that does not suppress the First Amendment or collective-bargaining rights of department members or their ability to interact with co-workers.

Though many chiefs may struggle with the myriad challenges and problems that digital and social media present, because they represent uncharted waters, the worst thing that any chief could do is stick his head in the sand and hope the problem goes away, according to Varone. That’s because it’s not going away, and ignoring it could have dire consequences for a department and its members.

“Ignoring the problem shows a lack of leadership,” Varone said. “What you really need to find is the right middle ground for your department. One size won’t fit all.”

Updated at 9:25 a.m. on 9/9/2011.

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