Mourning The Loss of Free Speech, Ham-Handed Chiefs, and How We Got Here

A little while back, I happened to read the posts by Bill Schumm (a la Firegeezer) and Dave Statter (of course, at Statter911) regarding Baltimore's recent changes in policy on social media and fire-related websites. On the day before, I read about the findings by the arbitrator, also on Dave's site, that the DCFD fire chief used his power to transfer personnel for retaliatory purposes.

Not far away, I saw posts on Facebook that I found troubling, regarding my friends in the Philadelphia Fire Department and the inexplicable decision to transfer 250+ firefighters around the city. And there is a post I saw on High Performance EMS about a ban in Winnipeg on firefighters and paramedics carrying cellular phones.

I spoke the other day on how true power can not be kept, it has to be shared.  But sharing power sometimes has consequences.  If you hand people power, you are handing it to them with the trust that they will do it wisely.  Just as we wouldn't hand someone acting irrationally a loaded gun, as leaders we must consider who we hand power to and what they intend to do with it.  And of course, if we hand someone power and they use it against us, that isn't very smart, is it?

The power of free speech comes with a lot of concern among those who currently maintain control.  If those who run things aren't careful to govern with an enlightened heart, free of ego, and using our power for the good of those we serve, turning that power loose by permitting free speech is truly just asking for trouble.  So how do those who rule this way keep the keys to the kingdom?  By suppressing the ability of the governed to speak, to share their knowledge, and from communicating the issues.

There is a valid argument that a good number of individuals have misused the principle of free speech to make unfounded accusations and to incite hate-filled rhetoric.  There are more than a few trolls out there who don't use this power wisely, instead, calling out anyone and everyone who they happen to disagree with, and more often than not, in the name of flawed logic.  But the truth is that those people are in the minority, and of course, broadly painting the masses with a negative brush is just asking for repercussions.

Companies all over the globe are finding the power in social media and embracing it, using it for their benefit.  But there are plenty of companies that have had their own employees make comments about working conditions, perceived issues, or the quality of the service or product they provide and not all of them can claim the same privilege enjoyed by public servants by saying "we have to have higher standards".

If this is the case, shouldn't the municipalities involved in such activities consider the reason why these situations occur?  As Dave Statter will tell you in his high-powered media relations classes, these situations exist because an informational vacuum exists.

There is no reason to be so circumspect if you and your organization is really working in the best behalf of the citizens.  Shutting down the information will simply cause it to leak out another side; people are going to talk, so the best way to manage that information is to be the principal source.  If you fail to manage your brand, someone else will manage it for you if it means enough to them.

The cities involved in shutting down free speech for their firefighters and paramedics are doing so often because these individuals have brought to light the poor practices, waste, and incompetency of the city executives.  In a number of cases the cities have fallen on the "protection of privacy for patients" or whatnot, when the clear reason for suppressing this speech is to keep people from speaking the truth: that things aren't as rosy as the Mayor's Office seem to portray.  It's a lot like a "Potemkin Village", where in order to appease Catherine of Russia, Potemkin had facades of buildings created,  villagers were ordered to dress pleasantly  and cheer her in the streets, and food was abundant.  In reality, it was not so.

The people charged with leading these communities should be more transparent in their activities and aspire to serving those who they are charged with serving.  If they are doing the things they should be, and all is really well, there should be no problem with free speech, because it would easily be discerned as to who is in the right and who is in the wrong.

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Michael "Mick" Mayers

Battalion Chief with Hilton Head Island (SC) Fire and Rescue and an Emergency Response Coordinator with the United States Department of Health and Human Services’ National Disaster Medical System Incident Response Coordination Team.

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