House fires, auto wrecks and traffic delays have long been staples of the evening news. But thanks to social media, we no longer have to wait to find out why fire engines are screaming through the neighborhood or why the interstate is at a standstill.
First responders like Bill Suthard of the Huntersville Fire Department are sending out updates in real time via social media.
Most people don’t know him, but Suthard is the man behind the @Huntersville_FD Twitter and Instagram feeds, the HuntersvilleFD.com website, and the department’s Facebook page. His photographs and alerts not only keep citizens informed, but also give news reporters what they need without waiting for phone calls or emails.
Just how much information to share is a constant debate among public safety officials. Suthard takes a positive approach. “We believe in feeding our customers – residents, visitors, the media,” he said.
Take the evening of Aug. 25, when an old, rotted tree toppled onto the roadway near Gilead and Bud Henderson roads. Suthard was on the scene quickly with firefighters and posted quickly to Twitter and Facebook.
A photo showed Huntersville Engine 2 with lights flashing and the shattered tree blocking the major east-west thoroughfare. The message read: “*ALERT* Gilead Rd at Bud Henderson Rd is CLOSED currently. Avoid Gilead Rd for all Western transit #clttraffic.”
Followup messages explained that the tree fell unexpectedly because of its condition, and not because of a wreck, and it didn’t hit any cars.
Suthard not only posts updates on emergencies and storm warnings, but also promotes the department’s other activities, from blood drives and other community events to the recent improvement in the town’s fire insurance rating.
He’ll sprinkle his postings with hashtags like #moveover or #onetownoneteam, capturing the town of Huntersville’s efforts to coordinate its services and branding.
The 43-year-old Army veteran is becoming known statewide as a public safety social media expert. Two weeks ago, he offered tips to fellow first responders in a presentation titled “Using Social Media to Engage and Inform,” at the South Atlantic Fire Rescue Expo in Raleigh.
Suthard has been been a Huntersville firefighter since 2009 and has been handling media relations, Web and social media for the department since 2011. And that’s just his side job. The 43-year-old Army veteran and former corporate security expert has worked full time for the Charlotte Fire Department since 2012, handling field communications and also helping out with social media.
Huntersville Fire Department had no public information officer when he started there, he said.
“I saw the need for it,” Suthard said, especially after the county began charging a fire district tax in the town’s unincorporated areas. Not only did people need quick information about emergencies, but the department needed a way to build awareness of its activities.
“We had an identity issue, too. We had some people on the north side of the town thought Charlotte Fire Department put the fires out. Even with some fund-raising, people were sending money to Charlotte,” he said.
“We said, you know what, we need to make sure we promote our brand, the town, the Fire Department, and be proud of what we’re doing and show them. So I just raised my hand and said we need this,” Suthard explained.
Four years into the job, Suthard said his goal is “to make sure the community knows that we are a busy agency that strives 100 percent of our duty day to help them. … We want to make sure they understand that their money is going towards our ability to assist them.”
Bobby Williams, the assistant to the Huntersville town manager, said Suthard is quick to share information and collaborate with other town officials.
“Bill’s connection and tracking of dispatch, work as a volunteer with the Huntersville Fire Department and passion for sharing information with residents and the news media make him one of the go-to people in our region as it relates to social media,” Williams said.
The town administration has been working in recent years to improve its communications with residents, he said. “Having a community partner like Bill on our side is a huge asset in accomplishing that goal and a great service to our community,” he said.
David Boraks is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.
In his presentation at the statewide conference, Bill Suthard offered a variety of tips and rules he follows when posting about emergencies.
▪ “When I post pictures, I want to post what I call the scene-tape side of the scene. I always want to have a fire truck in it. I want to show our equipment at work, but I don’t necessarily want to make light or receive attention because of somebody else’s tragedy.”
▪ Don’t post anything that can identify or embarrass someone. No photos from inside a fire-damaged home, for example, or of victims at an accident scene.
▪ Avoid medical calls and avoid posting news on incidents being handled by another agency.
▪ Stick to the facts, don’t post opinions.
▪ Promote fire department events, community service and other activities.
▪ Learn to use social media and understand the differences between the different platforms