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Area fire companies use Facebook to inform, recruit

August 6, 2014 (originally published July 13, 2014)
FROM:     Don Konkle, Executive Director, PFESI
BY:          Amanda Christman
RE:          Area fire companies use Facebook to inform, recruit

Pages on the Internet, posted through social media, are keeping the public engaged in emergency services in greater Hazleton.

Flipping through Facebook accounts administered by emergency services can easily tell the user where a crash or fire occurred along with telling the story of what life is like serving the community and what fundraisers will be held in the future.

Every day, Lt. Vinny Chitswara of McAdoo Fire Company Inc. posts at least one thing to the company's Facebook page. That keeps the site active, he said, and drives up the number of views promoting the department. As of July 2, its page had more than 9,000 likes from people across the country.

Postings about fire company food sales, he said, lures customers to them, especially when those posts are accompanied by a picture.

And in the same way, Chitswara said, new recruits are attracted to the fire service by looking at pictures or even video of actual emergencies firefighters respond to.

Rich Bognar, chief of Valley Regional Fire and Rescue, said many younger people are on Facebook so fire companies can reach out to a new generation of recruits in the hopes of bolstering the number of volunteer firefighters.

Chitswara said social media has become a way for fire departments to market themselves and expand their supporters throughout the country, too.

Radell Allgaier wears many hats with Sugarloaf Fire and Ambulance. She's the emergency medical services administrator, a firefighter, an emergency medical technician and also one of the administrators of the company Facebook page, which had tallied more than 1,060 likes as of July 2.

The company set up a Facebook account a few years ago, she said, mostly to make its name and individual firefighters more visible in the community.

The page allows the company to remind people of its events and fundraisers through online mass invitations on its social media account, she said. It also helps the company inform other firefighters what training is available and gives firefighters a way to provide safety tips, such as the annual message to change batteries in smoke detectors, the latter of which has become one of its most popular posts, Allgaier said.

Sometimes, she said, people don't realize that volunteer firefighters are "your everyday guy and gal with regular day and night jobs" who answered a call to community service because they enjoy it and feel compelled to do it. Social media, she said, has made people more aware of who volunteers are and that volunteers are still out there serving.

Facebook also has given firefighters in Sugarloaf a way to keep in touch with other departments, much like Allgaier's personal account helps her keep in touch with out-of-town family. Through social media, she said, firefighters are able to offer condolences to departments and the family of firefighters who lost their lives. It also has allowed the community to offer prayers to firefighters who dealt with traumatic calls and cheer departments on in times of accomplishment.

West Hazleton Chief Shawn Evans said a June 21 crash involving six teenagers on state Route 93 in West Hazleton had many people offering prayers for the injured on the company's Facebook page. It also helps keep people away from an emergency, Evans said, by diverting motorists.

Most of the department's Facebook activity is handled by one of its youngest members, 16-year-old Kyle Kaschak, who can usually be found at the fire station while on summer break from school. He has been a firefighter for three years and finds that posting information to the Facebook page is quicker and gets more attention than posting it to the company's official website.

Evans said Facebook also provides more interaction between firefighters and the community and prevents "misinformation" about calls from spreading.

Kaschak said he posts calls, fundraisers, winter school closings and weather events to keep people informed.

Posts may be delayed at times, Kaschak said, because a firefighter's primary concern is responding, not posting to the Internet.

He and other fire company members monitor comments and postings to their pages to make sure the content is appropriate and not derogatory.

Bognar said while Facebook can be a good and free communication tool for volunteer fire companies, it can also be hurtful. He said many departments constantly monitor their pages to keep unsavory remarks off their pages and to keep "armchair quarterbacks" from bashing others.

Fire companies, Evans said, also have to be careful and sensitive about what they post for the sake of patient confidentiality, so pictures of patients are not posted.

Steven Moyer, Beaver Meadows assistant chief, said firefighters always have to take into account people's feelings when posting a picture. He said though pictures from emergency calls keep people informed, line officers at Beaver Meadows must approve of a photo before it's posted to the company's account. Line officers also have access to delete posts they feel are inappropriate.

Beaver Meadows began its Facebook page to keep members informed on what was going on at the station, specifically for special events and meetings, and it turned into a place to keep the community informed as well. Those interested in becoming a volunteer firefighter have also used their Facebook page to get more information on how to join the company because response is more instantaneous that calling the station on a phone.

Police presence
Facebook isn't just for firefighters, as law enforcement is turning to social media to keep the community they serve better informed, too.

Weatherly police Officer Brittany Stasik has been orchestrating the borough's online efforts for several months, seeing it as one of the best ways to reach out to the community.

She scrolls down the police department's page, noting some of the posts that served as public reminders to state laws, such as having a vehicle's headlights turned on if its wipers are in motion.

Then there's the post about a hit-and-run crash asking people to be on the lookout for the skip vehicle and to call police with tips. It had 55 shares that were circulated online, further spreading the word. An upcoming bicycle safety class geared toward children was advertised, too.

The page, she said, shows the department is trying to reach out to the community, telling their stories of arrests and calls - not to poke fun at people but to show officers are actively protecting the community.

"We're always here. We're always a phone call away and it's the same thing with our Facebook," she said.

Though sometimes people offer tips to police on Facebook, Stasik cautioned that people still should call 911 for immediate police assistance.

People have posted on the Weatherly police page commending the department for its handling of specific investigations and calls, Stasik said, allowing those serving the public to know they are appreciated.

Officer Jake Dinkelacker said he has heard positive feedback from residents while on patrol about how the page keeps them informed.

"It's a huge tool" for police and residents, Stasik said.

Mike Morresi, chief of police in nearby Beaver Meadows, said he has been sharing information on the police department's Facebook page since the beginning of the year.

In addition to posting arrests and collecting tips online, Morresi reached out to the community through Facebook to raise funds to purchase a new police vehicle. That helped connect the department to donations, including one for $1,000.

Morresi said social media sites have been a popular means of communication and so many departments are starting their own pages to keep up with technology and the way the community at large wants to communicate.

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