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Is it time for firefighter social media ethics courses? Texas firefighter's nude pictures are the latest online trouble.

Coverage of Spalding County, Georgia cell phone video story

Social media vs. LODD

Some previous columns dealing with first responders, cameras & the web: herehere, herehere, here and here

From what I have seen since starting this blog in May, 2007 when firefighters get into serious trouble these days there usually is some connection to the Internet. Add a still or video camera to the mix and the possibilities for a suspension or firing and embarrassment to a department seem to increase exponentially. The problem is the "Look at Me Generation". I believe The Wall Street Journal is officially credited with that term, but I swear I was using it before them (or at least before I heard it elsewhere).

With this group there may not even be a generation gap, because it appears quite often their parents have taken on this singular characteristic that defines their children: making sure everybody knows what they are doing, every minute of the day.

It is not enough to experience life. It really didn't happen unless you took pictures or video, then posted it on Facebook, uploaded a clip to YouTube, wrote about it on your blog, Skyped and Tweeted.

The latest firefighter to experience the downside of "look at me" is Alejandro Garza, seen in the picture on the left from KXAN-TV's website. According to the TV station, the Austin, Texas firefighter takes "look at me" a little further than most. His is more like  "look at all of me". The Austin Fire Department has indefinitely suspended Garza after a jealous husband told the department about nude photos of the firefighter on the web. The article indicates Garza initially told supervisors those were old photos, but it was soon discovered there was recent stuff.

Some of you are probably saying if this was done in his off time, it shouldn't matter. Maybe. Maybe not. Here's how the Austin Fire Department looks at it:

The suspension memo said the sexual activity "clearly represents conduct unbecoming a member of the Austin Fire Department."  It also said Garza "brought further discredit to the department by including information which identified him as a firefighter in the City of Austin" in the postings.

The indefinite suspension cites a violation of the AFD rule against firefighters committing "acts showing a lack of good moral character."

The Austin story joins a growing list that includes the firefighter in Spalding County, Georgia facing termination after taking cell phone video of a dead woman, and numerous other recent disciplinary actions involving firefighters and their use of the Internet. Add to it the more general concerns that arise with cameras used by first responders and my recent discussion about the race against Facebook when there is a line-of-duty death. These issues aren't going to disappear by themselves. The fire service needs to be proactive if there is any chance of changing the culture.

Obviously, many young firefighters are coming into your departments not knowing any better (or, a less charitable view is it's an issue of not caring). They have grown up with the cell phone glued to the palm of their hand. They think it is an important part of life to keep everyone informed as to when they got up, what they are doing at home, at work, while they are driving, in the bedroom and even in the bathroom. I used to cringe at someone who regularly tweeted as they were enroute to EMS calls (I haven't seen that one of late).

I think it's long overdue that recruit classes include training on ethics as it relates to social media. If there are some fire chiefs already requiring it, good for you. If you aren't doing it, or haven't considered it, I hope these recent stories push you in that direction.

I am aware you aren't going to stop the digital revolution or change society as a whole. But just like teaching a new firefighter to rack hose your way you probably need to mold these new hires to make sure they understand that "look at me" may not be a good fit with what is expected of them as a member of your department.

In short, you need to make it clear to the young firefighter what is acceptable for posting and what your department's rules are when it comes to cameras. Of course, this training should probably extend beyond recruits to the entire department.

There will be some challenges with this type of training. With the technology evolving people are always finding new ways to get into trouble on the web. At the same time rules, regulations and ethics discussions aren't always keeping pace with reality. Also, if you aren't careful, your department's policies in this area do have the potential to be seen as infringing on someone's freedom of speech. What may seem common sense to you and me may be problematic for your department's legal counsel.

But don't let that stop you. Would you like to be the Austin fire chief or the Spalding County chief right now having to answer some really tough questions about what your firefighters have been up to? Or, would you rather have given it your best shot at preventing a young (or old) firefighter from having to update his (or her) Facebook status to "terminated" while you are scrambling to save the department's reputation?

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