Bel Air Fire Company suspends three, demotes fourth over Facebook posts

Four others may face disciplinary actions over Inflammatory online comments

BY BRYNA ZUMER, bzumer@theaegis.com

5:06 PM EDT, June 4, 2012


The Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company is investigating a complaint about a series of Facebook postings in which people wrote disparaging comments about a local business and allegedly made suggestions that firefighters should not respond to any calls there.

The initial Facebook posting on May 30 was: "Even when myself and a full engine crew are in turnout gear at Sonic for lunch, the manager still says only police and military get discounts. Cool, thanks we appreciate the support."

The responses included comments such as "let's make sure they don't get a response," "go set the Dumpster on fire" and "wait till its on fire, then see what he says."

Some posts, however, questioned why firefighters should receive a discount at all, such as: "Why such a sense of entitlement?"

To which the person whose page it is responded: "It's not a sense of entitlement at all, I just find it alarming that if your going to give a discount for public service, why not to all those who assist others. Just found it alarming that's all."

"We are already starting an investigation this morning," BAVFC Chief Eddie Hopkins said early Monday morning. "If this is in fact our members, I do not tolerate this kind of behavior at all."

By late Monday afternoon, Hopkins said he had identified at least six fire company members who made posts, including the member whose Facebook page started the exchange.

Hopkins said firefighters are cautioned that they represent the fire company when they are out in public and should act accordingly.

"We will handle it, we will investigate it and the appropriate discipline will be handed out," he said.

"We don't tolerate this kind of behavior," Hopkins continued. "I'm embarrassed and extremely disappointed that any of our members would make these statements."

Hopkins said the allegation came just days after firefighters from his company and around the county "performed flawlessly in a disaster," a reference to the tornado that hit the Fallston area Friday evening.

"I can promise you we aren't going to sweep this under the rug, but it will take a little time to do our investigation."

Hopkins said he received the complaint via an e-mail that was also sent to members of the media early Monday morning with an attachment of a computer screen scan of the offending comments. Hopkins said he has already been in contact with the complainant and received information regarding the dates and times of the posting.

"I've been working most of the day on this," he said. "We have a disciplinary matrix we have to follow, as in any personnel action, and we will."

Discipline would range from a reprimand to termination, and most likely a suspension, but Hopkins noted it is hard to weigh the benefit of suspending a volunteer firefighter versus the benefit of needing him or her on staff.

Hopkins said he does not use Facebook, but he did see the screen shot attachment.

"In my mind, that is pretty egregious and that is a very poor attitude, if they are firefighters," Hopkins said, when first contacted about it Monday.

Hopkins said he did not know if firefighters from other companies also posted, but the other names would be circulated to those companies. All fire companies in Harford are private, volunteer organizations, and Bel Air has among the largest memberships.

Hopkins said he recognized some of the non-BAVFC names on the posts as possibly belonging to other fire companies.

The behavior is not unprecedented, as firefighters have posted inappropriate photos or made comments on social media in the past, for which they have been reprimanded, he said.

He also said Bel Air has a social media policy for members, which he said "respects the right to free speech" but does not permit "comments such as I read; we don't tolerate that."

He also said firefighters routinely post photos on Facebook from the scene of fires, "We have had people working on a fire and saying, 'Isn't this a cool pick?' "

Sonic manager Rick Josh could not be reached for comment Monday.

Aegis Managing Editor Allan Vought contributed to this article.