Everyday EMS Ethics – Social Media and “Smart” phones?

Today I finally joined The Future™ and got up to speed with the latest technology 2006 has to offer by purchasing myself a shiny new BlackBerry Curve™ “Smart” phone. This thing is SO COOL! I can access my tweets, my facey page, and all of my other online stuff right through it AT ALL TIMES. It’s not an overload, really… I like carrying on 14 conversations at once… at all times. Really I do.

This new addition to my arsenal of cool tech gadgets got me thinking about a story I heard somewhere about a young firefighter/EMT that ran into a bit of trouble with one of these things. Incidentally, this story could have come from any public safety agency anywhere these days, so you probably don’t know whom I’m speaking of here, but if you think you do then go kick that person in the butt for me.

Anyway, this young firefighter/EMT was a full-fledged, “smart” phone carryin’ member of The Future™. Like any good young member, he was fully invested in Social Media. This firefighter/EMT responded to an incident scene and thought that a picture of the incident would make excellent fodder to post on one of the social media sites that he participated in. So, he snapped the picture with his “smart” phone and immediately posted it on the social media site. Appended to the photo he put what undoubtedly was an especially witty and thoughtful comment related to the person(s) who caused the incident.

Thus ensued “all hell” being brought down upon this young firefighter/EMT by the upper echelons of his fire department. Turns out that the Chief, the Assistant Chief, and a number of his coworkers were “friends” of this young firefighter/EMT and were immediately notified of what he’d posted on the social media site. They were not amused in the least and did not find the humor in the especially witty comment that he’d posted with the picture.

I agree with the Chief on this one. Let me be the first one to expound upon the virtues of social media in EMS and Fire. The fact that you’re here reading this is a testament to its potential to positively influence our profession and our interactions with the public and each other. However, its potential to tarnish our image if used irresponsibly is there as well. This case was an example of that.

I never did get a chance to see the picture, but from what I heard of the case the picture did not involve any personally identifiable information. Locals could have seen the picture and identified it, so could those involved of course, but it didn’t violate any laws that I know of.

What it did violate, are the ethical standards in which we operate under. Public safety people respond to incident scenes where we see things not meant for public viewing every day. We’re all familiar, I hope, with HIPAA and the various other privacy laws that we operate under, but we also need to be aware of the ethical standards that guide our interactions with private information.

When I got into this business, the metaphor that we used was “The Coffee Shop”. We were told to keep our shop talk behind closed doors within the service, and not go down to the local coffee shop where people could hear us talk. In the small town I lived in, everybody knew everybody and everybody had a scanner. Even if one of our guys was talking about “This Person” who had had some type of medical condition or had injured themselves in a spectacular way, everyone would know whom he was speaking of. Thusly, we didn’t go talking about what we saw out in the public. It wasn’t a legally mandated standard, it was an ethical standard of behavior that allowed the public to trust us and feel comfortable calling us in their hour of need. People won’t call us when they need us if they fear public embarrassment. Most people, that is.

Nowadays, it’s gotten complicated. With social media sites more popular than ever and showing no signs of slowing down, the impulse for some of our ranks to post information of an ethically non-public nature up there on the interwebz can be irresistible. With my “smart” phone in my pocket at all times, I have an express lane to career ruin right there at my fingertips. All I have to do is act irresponsibly one time with a photo, comment, or post and my career is finished.
And I remember and respect that. 

Professionally Ethical behavior requires that we separate our professional lives from our personal ones. While it would have been no big deal for Joe-Public-Came-Across-An-Accident-Scene to snap a quick pic and send it off, it is a huge deal for a Professional Rescuer to do the same. We were called to the scene to help the people involved. Professional Ethics mandate we leave our personal feelings and personal lives at the station. If the public gets the perception that their personal business is going to be splashed across the interwebz by one of the people who came to help them, then I’ll bet that the public is going to be mad at that.

Just remember, folks. Friends and families of public safety people have always been interested in what we do out there. They always will be. With today’s ultra access into our personal lives that social media can bring, it’s easy for youngins to get carried away and violate the ethical standards on spreading private information. There’s a rule for this and technology hasn’t changed that rule. You don’t use your position of public trust to gain access to and spread private information.

Just don’t do it. Resist the urge and keep your career, and honor, intact.

  • emschick

    Great post. Welcome to the wave of the Future! I just joined a few months ago by getting a Curve so don't feel too bad.

    So far the only time I've used it is to take pictures of scenes for training only (and normally with the driver's permission) or to access information about a prescription medication.

  • It shouldn't take an incident like this to learn the youngin's about professional ethics. But as you say, “nowadays” things are different. Some people have to learn the hard way about what it means to be ethical in this day and age of instant posting. It's a painful – yet necessary – step toward maturity. I'll get there someday….

  • emschick

    Great post. Welcome to the wave of the Future! I just joined a few months ago by getting a Curve so don't feel too bad.

    So far the only time I've used it is to take pictures of scenes for training only (and normally with the driver's permission) or to access information about a prescription medication.

  • It shouldn't take an incident like this to learn the youngin's about professional ethics. But as you say, “nowadays” things are different. Some people have to learn the hard way about what it means to be ethical in this day and age of instant posting. It's a painful – yet necessary – step toward maturity. I'll get there someday….

  • totwtytr

    It never ceases to amaze me how young people seem completely willing to put their entire lives on display. When I had a Facebook account, I purposefully kept things as vague as possible, posted no pictures, and never posted about work. Maybe that's why I wasn't all that excited about FB and got rid of it quickly.

    While blogging isn't exactly private, I keep it as discrete as possible, as do most bloggers I know.

    There must be a typing corollary to “No one ever got in trouble by keeping their mouth shut.”

  • Hello!!!!
    Just got back round to reading blogs again, so I thought I would stop here first!

    Just to prove that both you and I continue to be on the same wave length, I am in the process of writing an article for our internal service publication as well as the national 'Ambulance Today' publication about the virtues of social media and the HUGE benefits is can bring, along with the risks to your service and ultimately your career.

    It still frustrates me greatly that my employers just don't get how great this could be.

    However, I need to keep chipping away at them an hopefully they will catch on soon.

  • Hello!!!!
    Just got back round to reading blogs again, so I thought I would stop here first!

    Just to prove that both you and I continue to be on the same wave length, I am in the process of writing an article for our internal service publication as well as the national 'Ambulance Today' publication about the virtues of social media and the HUGE benefits is can bring, along with the risks to your service and ultimately your career.

    It still frustrates me greatly that my employers just don't get how great this could be.

    However, I need to keep chipping away at them an hopefully they will catch on soon.

  • Hello!!!!
    Just got back round to reading blogs again, so I thought I would stop here first!

    Just to prove that both you and I continue to be on the same wave length, I am in the process of writing an article for our internal service publication as well as the national 'Ambulance Today' publication about the virtues of social media and the HUGE benefits is can bring, along with the risks to your service and ultimately your career.

    It still frustrates me greatly that my employers just don't get how great this could be.

    However, I need to keep chipping away at them an hopefully they will catch on soon.

  • Hello!!!!
    Just got back round to reading blogs again, so I thought I would stop here first!

    Just to prove that both you and I continue to be on the same wave length, I am in the process of writing an article for our internal service publication as well as the national 'Ambulance Today' publication about the virtues of social media and the HUGE benefits is can bring, along with the risks to your service and ultimately your career.

    It still frustrates me greatly that my employers just don't get how great this could be.

    However, I need to keep chipping away at them an hopefully they will catch on soon.