Social Media Fire Celebrities vs. The Kitchen Table - Leveraging Stories for Change

Jim Aleski

January 22, 2024

In the last few years, we've seen fire departments, union locals, and individual firefighters come a long way when telling the stories of what the fire service does. With less local media coverage than ever before but access to online tools (aka social media) that allow the sharing of information more effortlessly than ever, firefighters are finally starting to master the promotion of the fire service's brand.

And make no mistake, the fire service is an excellent brand. There's a reason politicians line up to take pictures with firefighters every election season. Advertisers have long associated the products they are pushing with positive images that firefighters present. 

Firefighters have leveraged these relationships to make gains in the political and public relations spheres. This progress is notable. But have some of these advancements gotten a little out of hand?

We aren't just branding our service or departments these days - we're branding ourselves. Everyone now has a training company or hosts a conference or podcast. We have full-blown A-list, B-list, and C-list fire celebrities!

In many ways, I think this is an extension of what we've always done – tell stories. Some of this is invaluable. It takes the brother and sisterhood that has long defined our service and spreads it behind the walls of our local firehouses. But it creates challenges.

The fire service is local. When listening to somebody, not from your department or area, context isn't always there. Experience and reps (i.e., going to many fires) are undoubtedly invaluable. But there's often a disconnect listening to a guy who has spent his career riding on a 6-man ladder company in a high-rise jungle giving tips to a guy riding a 2-man engine company in an area without fire hydrants.

A few years ago, I went to a class run by an A-list fire celebrity. He had tons of information to share, and his experience and knowledge were unquestioned. But about halfway through, a slide came up with a picture of a fire (shown above). The presenter was giving a critique of the actions happening in the picture. The audience was engaged and on board with his criticisms of the scene presented in the photo. The only issue? Everything he was saying was wrong.

How do I know? Because I was AT the fire. I was the nozzle-man on the backup line. I was just steps out of the photo on the screen.

So I raise my hand and say, "Hey, great class, so far. Just one thing, I was at this fire… and that's not what was going on."

His response? "Good for f***ing you! I don't even know where this is from. I just found it on the Internet."

I knew that what he was saying in that picture was wrong. Did that throw some doubt into the other images he discussed? I don't know. Does it even matter? Hard to say. At least this guy's resume was not in question. But did it create some questions? Absolutely.

A few years before that, I was in a class taught by a fire chief who was a very early advocate of fire departments using social media. This guy was all over Twitter sharing new and innovative ideas that you weren't hearing from many other people at the time, much less the head of a decent size career fire department. And while his personal social media accounts were very active, I couldn't even find his own department's accounts online.

So I ask, "Chief, great class, but where is your own department doing all of these things online? I can't find your accounts."

The Chief took a few steps back and gave an uncomfortable look. He then says, "well, the city doesn't allow the fire department to have its own social media accounts."

So here was a guy flying around the country to teach fire departments how to use social media, yet his own department wasn't doing any of the things he was teaching! He could have chosen to incorporate the challenges he was having with his city leadership into the class. There would have probably been some teachable moments there. But instead, he left all of that out.

Again, was the information shared still valuable? Absolutely. But was it all based in reality? Nope.

It's critical for members of the fire service to share information and tell stories both internally and externally. Historically this happened around the firehouse kitchen table, where we knew the storyteller, the characters, and the audience. We had context. We had history.

And as the firehouse kitchen table has expanded onto the Internet and into the countless conferences popping up around the country, information exchange has become easier and more accessible than ever. But that context is not always there. History is almost certainly not there.

The firehouse kitchen table has always been an important place for storytelling because the hierarchy of seniority and experience helps police the shared information. Nonsense is called out right on the spot. Misinformation is corrected.

But as the firehouse kitchen table continues to expand beyond the walls of individual firehouses, we need to be mindful to extend these practices of keeping things in context and calling out nonsense. If these fire service celebrities have the pedigrees and experiences many of them claim to have, they'll have no problem getting called out in front of the members when they are wrong.

Jim Aleski is a 25-year fire service veteran and career Lieutenant in the Cherry Hill (NJ) Fire Department outside of Philadelphia. Jim serves as a Branding and Content Specialist at NEP and formerly served as the Communications/Social Media Director for the Professional Firefighters Association of New Jersey (PFANJ), the state affiliate of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF). Prior to becoming a career firefighter, Jim responded as a volunteer while working for more than a decade as a media producer. Jim was involved in the production of hundreds of national TV commercials, network branding campaigns, music videos, and corporate communication projects. Jim holds a BS in Mass Communications from Emerson College and earned a MS in Fire and Emergency Management Administration from Oklahoma State University.