The Baltimore City Fire Department plans to implement new social media guidelines after Chief James S. Clack said he found that firefighters and officers were "crossing the line" by posting inappropriate or sensitive information online.
The social media website Twitter has become a forum for griping about City Hall policies in 140 characters or fewer — the maximum allowed in postings. The new policy comes after fire personnel have written a number of heated, politically charged barbs aimed at the department, Clack, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and the City Council over a recent budgetary decision to close three fire companies in the city.
The policy, which is still being drafted, would provide guidelines on appropriate social media postings. Some firefighters said they worry that the policy would be used as a political tool to stifle dissent among their ranks, and free-speech advocates have raised concerns about the right of employees to air opinions without fear of reprisal.
"It's happening more and more, cases are cropping up across the country, and it's troubling for people who care about free speech," said David L. Hudson, a scholar at the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, who has written about public employees' social media rights.
"If the public employer deems that the online comments of a public employee are detrimental to the internal operations of the company, then sometimes employees are suspended, punished and disciplined."
Anthony Guglielmi, a Baltimore police spokesman, said his department is also creating a social media policy — a draft version based on the guidelines of the International Association of Chiefs of Police is currently being reviewed by department lawyers. But he said the effort wasn't prompted by any problems.
"We haven't had any issues where [social media] has been abused, but we do need policies and procedures," Guglielmi said.
Smith, who drives emergency vehicles, said he doesn't understand "what the big deal is" if firefighters want to tweet, especially while they are not on duty. "I think the public has the right to know what's going on, rather than the smoke and mirrors," he said.
Firefighter Andrew Doyle, a 10-year veteran on Fire Boat 1, said the Fire Department should embrace social media rather than focus on censoring it. He has taken social media courses with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"We are one of the busiest fire departments in the nation, and sometimes we get overlooked by citizens and government," he said. "We just want to let them know we're here and we're keeping the city safe."
Clack says the intent of the Fire Department's new policy isn't to suppress critics and hopes the new policy will help prevent repercussions for inappropriate postings. Clack said the process first began about three months ago, and the new policy will be completed in the next few weeks.
"What we're attempting to do is define for members what is OK and what isn't," Clack said. "We're not going to be able to cover every scenario, but we want to provide some guidelines so people don't get themselves in trouble."
Clack would not provide examples of problematic postings or discuss individual fire personnel or their social media accounts. But said the department has noticed more Fire Department employees posting information on social media platforms, mainly on Twitter, that could be interpreted as official reports but are actually unofficial and often incorrect.
The department has also noted information posted about shootings and other violent incidents in the city that has the potential to harm police investigations or put working firefighters, paramedics or police officers in danger, Clack said.
"This is kind of an emerging issue in the fire service, and I guess in all kinds of professions," Clack said. "What do you do with this kind of instantaneous communication method that's out there? And how do you allow people to have their freedom of speech and engage in dialogue that's out there, but at the same time protect the department? That's what we're trying to balance."
Companies, governments and organizations have devised social media policies across the country in recent years, and employees have been reprimanded for sharing information related to their work online.
Last month, three members of the Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company in Harford County were suspended, a fourth was demoted and a fifth is facing termination after they complained on Facebook about not receiving a discount at a local restaurant. They joked about not responding to emergency calls there and possibly starting a fire in one of the restaurant's trash bins. The fire company is now reviewing its social media policies.
Last year, Pete Piringer, who had worked for decades as a public information officer for Fire and Emergency Medical Services in Washington, was transferred to another city agency after the Twitter account on which he wrote raised concerns among higher-ups, who believed sensitive information was being posted. District of Columbia Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe had told reporters he had decided Piringer's tweets needed to be "filtered," according to The Washington Post.