Fallston Group

Fire, Facebook & Freedom of Speech

The Bel Air Volunteer Fire Department finds itself embroiled in controversy following a series of posts on Facebook. The controversy started when one of the company’s volunteers complained on his Facebook page about not receiving a discount at a near-by Sonic Drive-In Restaurant. The Fire Chief suspended three volunteer firefighters and demoted one of them shortly after being made aware of the Facebook posts. Four other members of the fire company also face possible disciplinary actions for their involvement in the incident.

The controversy escalated when one of the responses to the initial post suggested the volunteers not respond to any future fires at the Sonic Restaurant. That response was later determined not to be from a member of the Bel Air Volunteer Fire Department. In a published report, the Fire Chief said he recognized the names on some of the responses as possibly being from other volunteer departments and has passed along this information to other organizations. All Harford County (MD) fire companies are volunteer organizations.

According to the Fire Chief, some who have been suspended face additional disciplinary action, including termination, from the volunteer Department, which has recommended. That action will be decided at a later date by the fire company’s Board of Directors. All of the volunteers involved in the incident will also be allowed to appeal the actions taken against them. The Bel Air Volunteer Fire Department has a policy which allows members to receive discounts offered to them from local businesses.

In a situation of crisis for the Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company, the Fire Chief moved into action and demonstrated the attributes of a resilient leader. When notified of the information, he thoroughly investigated to determine all of the facts. To ensure personal credibility, all information must be checked and double-checked in a timely manner for accuracy before making a decision. The Chief did that in this case.

When approached by the media for comment, the Chief again followed a model of proven success for resilient leadership. First, he responded to the reporters inquiry rather than hiding behind a “no comment.” After confirming his facts, he acknowledged an incident had occurred; he stated both the short- and long-term actions and the effects he believed those actions would have in resolving the matter. Finally, he expressed his feelings about the incident when he said “… it’s hurtful to me personally and hurts the credibility of the fire and EMS service.” In addition, he praised the overall performance of the Bel Air Fire Company elsewhere in his response, specifically pointing-out their exemplary performance following a tornado which recently hit the area.

When leaders respond to crisis effectively, they enable their organization to address the incident and move beyond it quickly with as little impact on the overall organization as possible. The Bel Air Volunteer Fire Department turned adversity into advantage.

For more information about crisis and strategic communications, call the Fallston Group at 410.420.2001. Send email inquiries to info@fallstongroup.com.

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