Fire Chief would like to reach even more residents via social media

By Jeff LaBonte

“Responding to an MVA with injuries at Prospect and Rt 20. Avoid the area.”  If you’ve received a Tweet or Facebook message like this one, then you are following @auburnmassfire on Twitter, or ‘Like’ auburnmassfire on Facebook.  The Auburn Fire Rescue Department has 1,729 Facebook ‘Likes’ and 931 Twitter followers as of today.  Fire Chief Stephen Coleman would like to see those numbers keep growing.

“This is how people communicate now” says Chief Coleman.  “Whether you like the trend or not, we’re almost obligated to participate from a notification and public safety perspective.”

According to Chief Coleman, the feedback from AFRD’s social media presence has been very positive. “People like the real-time element. It helps them avoid traffic, and it improves safety for our responders. When we have crews operating in the road, the less traffic coming by the better.”

It certainly seems to work. The incidents posted by the shift commanders are shared and retweeted repeatedly, especially for motor vehicle accidents that tie up major routes like routes 12, 20, 290 or the Pike.

Says Chief Coleman, “We always see an uptick in [social media] followers after an incident. That’s great. We’d like to have as many people following as possible before an incident, so we can reach many people as quickly as possible.”

Auburn has used CodeRed for several years, and Chief Coleman acknowledges that this is an important tool for Town officials to get information out. However, with more and more people relying on smartphones and making their mobile their primary number, not everyone remembers to update CodeRed information. If you are not at home, and that is the only telephone number you have on CodeRed, you may not receive important notices.

Seemingly everyone today is carrying a tablet, a smartphone, or is sitting at a computer. According to Pew Research, over 90% of Americans use the internet. Of those, over 70% of adults have a Facebook profile and about 20% use Twitter. All told, over 90% of internet users have some kind of social media profile. The figures for teens (ages 12-17) show even greater internet and social media usage.

Given the demographics, it would seem natural for fire departments, police departments and municipalities to make use of social media. But this is not the case.

“I often get asked how we use social media in Auburn, who does the updates, how does it work. There is currently little education [for responders] on how to use social media” says Chief Coleman.

Auburn is actually an exception in its aggressive use of social media, and is recognized by other departments for its initiative. In fact, Chief Coleman has been asked to present to the Fire Chiefs’ Association of Massachusetts in February on how AFRD has integrated social media.

So, how do they do it? Ever wonder who is typing in those alerts as the fire engines are screaming to an emergency?

AFRD has about a dozen people authorized to post to the department’s Facebook and Twitter feeds. (The two accounts are linked, so posting to one automatically posts to the other.) Chief Coleman says other Chiefs have expressed surprise that Coleman is comfortable having so many people post on the department’s behalf.

“I tell them, considering what I trust these guys to do every day in their jobs, I don’t even think twice about trusting them to post to social media.” He continued, “We made it [social media] a priority. We have a clear social media policy, and we provide training about what can be posted and when.”

The Town of Auburn, too, has a social media policy. Assistant IT director Amanda Gage is in charge of the town social media profiles, and is authorized to post to various Town accounts. In the event of a town-wide incident – the recent bomb threats at AHS, for example – there is a procedure known as ‘unified command’. All of the responding agencies are coordinated under one commander, and Gage would be responsible for monitoring and updating social media profiles for Police, Fire and Town sites.

“It’s important to keep information flowing” says Coleman. “With the bomb scares, you have probably 600 cell phones in the high school, and there is a lot of information flowing in and out of the building. We need to do what we can to ensure the public is getting accurate information. A lot of incorrect information gets out during these incidents.”

One thing for sure is that if something urgent happens in town, it will be on social media. “It’s the main way we get information out now” says Chief Coleman. “It’s well worth the follow or the like. It’s an important tool for us.”

You can find Auburn Fire Rescue Department on Facebook at AuburnMassFire and on Twitter at @auburnmassfire.