Social media for volunteer EMS agencies

You have to communicate daily to your followers, with interesting and timely messages, or you’ll lose them quickly

By Dan Knight
Penflex, Inc.

These days, it seems that everywhere you look there's a message asking you to "connect" with someone, or some company, on Twitter and Facebook. We've all seen the badges at the bottom of a website or on a billboard.

You can't read a news article online without seeing the little "like this" message by the author's name. But what does it all mean? If this strategy is working for companies and celebrities, can it work for your town? Your volunteer fire or EMS department/agency? And how?

First, let's take a look at what these things are. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr and even blogging are all different forms of Social Media. According to Wikipedia, social media is defined as "The use of web-based and mobile technologies to turn communication into interactive dialogue."

The "interactive" part is where these two tools differ from your website, your public relations efforts and your advertising. This is how you can get citizens, voters, potential volunteers and even tourists engaged. It's "social" because you're having a conversation with them, not just bombarding them with a message they can choose to ignore.

What's more, the audience you reach with social media is highly targeted, meaning they are only listening to your message because they've already decided they are interested in what you have to say. With Facebook boasting more than 500 million users and Twitter reaching the 200 million mark, it's obvious that some of those combined 700 million users will be interested in your message.

Getting started
Before starting down the social media road, it's important that any volunteer department or municipality knows what to expect. Unless you're Charlie Sheen, you aren't going to open an account on Monday and have a million followers by Tuesday. That is not how these services generally work.

Social media is a road, not a destination, and it takes daily effort, perseverance and a willingness to communicate without a net. I say without a net because a lot of organizations are extremely reluctant to say anything to the press, in a press release or even in an ad without a series of committee meetings, revisions and an otherwise cumbersome approval process.

Social media, on the other hand, means putting trusted people in charge of the account and letting them speak, answer questions or offer advice. Not every message that goes out to the world can be extensively reviewed. You have to communicate daily to your followers, with interesting and timely messages, or you'll lose them quickly.

Before your town or volunteer department gets started you have to recognize the time and attention it will take. You should also have a frank discussion about the dangers and pitfalls of social media. One need look no further than the ranks of professional athletes and celebrities to see people getting in trouble by issuing spur of the moment tweets or status updates.

Much like any other aspect of the internet, once you put it out there it is there forever. Sure, you can go back and delete a tweet or status update you regret, but it's already been seen in real-time and perhaps even shared with others. There's no cramming that toothpaste back into the tube.

Practical applications
Having said that, there are very practical uses for social media and it can be extremely beneficial to your town or volunteer organization. Imagine being a volunteer fire department that has put sufficient time and energy into Twitter and Facebook — enough to have a large number of people right in your town following you.

Now you can tell them all at once about a call you just answered, a life you just saved, a fundraising or volunteer drive you're having and more. And what's even better than this — chances are good that your followers are connected to others who live in your town, want to visit your town or are interested in your department as well.

If your message is sufficiently engaging they may choose to "share" it with their friends and followers, thereby increasing exponentially the number of people you've just spoken with. All at once, with one click of the mouse.

Of equal importance to volunteer fire and EMS departments is the fact that social media users are community oriented, more likely to respond to your messages and are very inclined to volunteer in their communities. According to the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project, 80 percent of online Americans are affiliated in some way with a volunteer or non-profit group compared to only 56 percent of those who say that aren't online often or at all.

The news is even better when you look at social media users: 82 percent of them are involved with a volunteer or non-profit. Twitter leads the pack here with 85 percent of its users reporting they volunteer their time somewhere.



About the author:

Dan Knight is a marketing and public relations professional with 15 years of experience working with a diverse list of clients that includes everything from financial institutions to software development companies. As part of the new Web 2.0 initiative at Penflex, Dan has helped grow successful Facebook and Twitter accounts where the staff can personally interact with volunteer firefighters and EMS workers all over the country. Like Penflex on Facebook or follow them on Twitter to join the conversation!

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