County responders can get discounts, post on Facebook ... within reason

A spokeswoman for the Baltimore County police and fire departments said last week that the county's policies allow emergency personnel to accept discounts from businesses that offer them and also allow the use of social media — but with limits on both.

"Basically, we remind employees that they should not do or comment on county business (on social media), and to be mindful of the image they present online," said spokeswoman Elise Armacost in an email.

"The rules and regulations for both police and fire prohibit conduct unbecoming to a member of the department," she said.

Armacost was responding to an inquiry about policies from the Towson Times in the wake a case in neighboring Harford County. There, four Bel Air firefighters were disciplined this week for inflammatory comments they made on Facebook complaining about not receiving a discount at the Bel Air Sonic drive-in restaurant.

Some responses to the original post suggested that the department not respond to any fire calls at the business, saying, "go set the Dumpster on fire" and "wait till its on fire, then see what (the restaurant manager) says."

In the wake of those comments and others, three members were suspended and a fourth demoted.

But some of the posts in the Harford County incident questioned why firefighters should receive a discount at all, with one post asking: "Why such a sense of entitlement?"

Armacost said that in Baltimore County, emergency workers can accept modest discounts.

"In both departments, police and fire, personnel are allowed to accept discounts from restaurants, etc.., for public safety workers," Armacost said.

However, the county ethics law does not allow them "to accept tips or gifts in exchange for services rendered, or to accept any kind of gift or perk from an establishment they regulate," she said.

"For example, a fire inspector may not accept anything from a restaurant he inspects for compliance with fire codes," she said.

Baltimore County does not regulate employees' personal social media use, but the county policy makes clear that employees "should not use their personal social media accounts to conduct county business," Armacost said.

The exact language of the code states that, "County employees should use their assigned county e-mail addresses and clearly identify themselves as government employees and their specific roles in county government when conducting, or commenting on, county business through social media."

Armacost said the county provides training and guidance to police and fire department members about "smart use of social media."

"Such training is now standard for recruits, promotional candidates and others," she said.

Volunteer fire companies, whose members are not county employees, may have less of a formal policy.

For instance, the Lansdowne Volunteer Fire Department has no policy against its rescue workers maintaining personal Facebook accounts, said John Brinkley, the station's EMS captain.

"We don't encourage them to do so like most employers," Brinkley said of posting about work-related issues. "There's really no policy in place. Most of the guys use common sense."

As for discounts, Brinkley said the rescue workers have the option of accepting them if offered.

"If they give it to us, they give it to us," Brinkley said. "If they don't, it's not a big deal."

Bryna Zumer of The Aegis contributed to this story.

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