Social Media to the Rescue – Jacob Waterall

Despite the unpredictability, emergency services have increased their presence across online social media platforms. This need to be visible and heard has never been more important than during the COVID-19 pandemic. Jacob Waterall takes a closer look at what having them in our newsfeeds means, and how we can all benefit from this digital outreach.

It’s hard for me to remember a time when I wasn’t interested in the emergency services. I think the point of no return was my dad buying me a videotape about different types of fire engines aged 10. My little aspie mind was entranced by all the different machines with blue lights and sirens. The firefighters seemed like real superheroes defeating monster-like fires. A couple of decades later, my interest has widened to all emergency services – and those initial impressions remain. I can, with some confidence (as a bird-enthusiast would do with birds) tell a fire engine’s siren from an ambulance’s.

I think the point of no return was my dad buying me a videotape about different types of fire engines. My little aspie mind was entranced by all the different machines with blue lights and sirens.

Over the last few years, social media has played a more prominent role in the public’s opinion of emergency services. Many have an online presence, some with a single, centralised account, others allowing individual divisions and stations their own. Usually, they’re approached with caution, likely to lessen any risk of accountability should something be misinterpreted.

Before the outbreak, the services’ press and public image had been on a bit of a rollercoaster. Incidents like Grenfell cast doubt on official advice, and the police were often under fire in online videos of heated interactions with the public – many commenters lacking the full context of what happened before the camera was turned on.

Since the onset of the pandemic, the content has been changing. Emergency services face new challenges and responsibilities, and awareness of these challenges is being highlighted effectively online. Ambulance services have, as part of the NHS, played their role in spreading the message to ‘stay home’ and prevent the virus’ spread. After a blaze in Gleadless, the fire service started a campaign against garden fires, even encouraging people to sign a pledge and abstain from lighting more.

As police try to keep the streets clear, pictures shaming those flouting the rules have become common on their accounts. A tactic not without controversy. After the first weekend of lockdown, Derbyshire Constabulary posted a video taken by their Drone Policing Unit, featuring people walking into the Peak District from out of the area. This came under fire for being overly intrusive, with decrying commenters claiming they weren’t in the wrong, accusing the constabulary of being overzealous with their powers. Others defended the video for illustrating what isn’t acceptable. Personally, I felt the video was justified and effective; reiterating guidance at a stage where we weren’t certain people would obey restrictions over a weekend, and at a crucial time in the virus’ horrendous delayed peak. The fact it sparked a debate regarding keeping exercise local, to me, says it did its job.

Personally, I felt the video was justified and effective; reiterating guidance at a stage where we weren’t certain people would obey restrictions over a weekend, and at a crucial time in the virus’ horrendous delayed peak.

Reminding everyone of the rules is important, but it’s a difficult line to walk. We are more likely to listen if we feel it’s an actual person, rather than a badge, behind the messages. Yorkshire Ambulance’s Twitter feed did this by adding a series of images featuring tokens of appreciation they received, along with inspirational quotes from staff members, often stating how much they enjoy their jobs. With patients’ testimonials as part of an NHS-wide campaign; ‘Experience of Care Week 2020.’ It’s an important, emotive campaign, highlighting positivity at a time when the health service faces one of the most extreme challenges in its history.

While they still share a lot of information on how to keep safe, services have diversified their output to make it more engaging. One driving appeal of social media is getting a peek into the account owners’ lives. The emergency services are no exception. South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue’s output is a standout example of how to engage with the community while appealing to enthusiasts like me. I’ve praised them for this in their posting photos of their activities, and throwbacks to rescues of years gone by. My personal favourites are their enthralling cinematic images of recent incidents.

Their output has added more public-focused content too, including pictures of neighbourhood teams patrolling; adding a level of humanity to their activities. It’s common to see pictures of thank you messages to the NHS made out of protective clothing and equipment, as well as features highlighting staff volunteering in the community. They’ve even launched a new podcast featuring firefighters and control room staff. Additionally, they’ve reached out to those facing domestic violence in lockdown and encouraged anyone who needs help to seek it.

Humanising content is one thing, but getting people not normally interested to pay attention is another. Many accounts have approached this obstacle via entertainment. As viral videos and memes become ever-more popular, services’ pages have gradually gotten involved with these crazes with recreations of Gangnam Style, The Harlem Shake, The Running Man Challenge, and Baby Shark, mostly as amusing diversions.

In the current pandemic, the videos have become a morale boost for the nation. ‘TikTok challenges’ are now a common feature. The most popular of which include dancing to the start of The Weeknd’s ‘Blinding Lights’. Rotherham and Doncaster fire stations have participated in this challenge. Both videos garnered over 10k views each, and acted as reminders to participate in each Thursday’s ‘Clap for Carers’.

Humourous content is more likely to elicit shares too. Where they can mix humour with a key message is when they are at their most effective. Pre-pandemic, in February, South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue’s crowning achievement in entertaining videos was their marking of 2020’s LGBT+ History Month. In 2019, they added a pride flag to their Facebook profile which brought a number of narrow-minded comments. Subsequently, they worked these comments into a comedic video while reasserting their support of the LGBT+ community. At the time of writing, the video has over 400k views. It’s also a potential example of changing perceptions of institutional prejudice, which services are sometimes accused of, and promoting more diversity in recruitment.

Humourous content is more likely to elicit shares too. Where they can mix humour with a key message is when they are at their most effective.

Humorous content isn’t limited to official accounts. Facebook pages such as UK Cop/Paramedic/Firefighter Humour and Bullshire Police are dedicated to satirising and poking fun at scenarios faced by services. Anything goes, from images of face-masks on ambulances to ridiculing Donald Trump’s absurd bleach musings. Darker humour even pokes fun at some people’s insistence of flouting social distancing, and not even the shortage of PPE is safe from satire.

Some might argue this type of humour is offensive and disrespectful, but judging by the ratio of laughing reactions on these posts, they resonate with the public and emergency workers alike, with many comments providing additional comedic anecdotes. As someone who understands a lot of the in-jokes, I find them hilarious.

Being able to laugh at ourselves, even in the face of possible death (exemplified in sitcoms like ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’ and ‘Bluestone 42)’, is a staple of British humour. It’s also a genius way to point out double standards, expose truths and, dare I say, educating us. Add to this the lens of the emergency services, and it’s harder to see them as a one-dimensional ‘force’ but rather a complex set of factors, needs and people.

Besides humour, there is also bonding over inspirational messages from people helped by emergency services, and those highlighting the stresses of the job or when tragedy strikes. The death of South Yorkshire Police Constable Matt Lannie; killed in a traffic collision while responding to an emergency, and the COVID-19 deaths of two of Yorkshire Ambulance Service’s staff, were both handled with care. From a services point of view, the thank yous and acknowledgements from the public can only have a positive effect on morale, particularly at this very testing time.

All this said, these online approaches, connecting the public with services and vice versa, haven’t been without detractors. Several commenters have accused emergency workers of disregarding their duties and social distancing in search of online fame, while others see the whole practice as a waste of time. An article in the Daily Mail took things a step further; implying the dancing videos were distasteful and disrespectful to coronavirus patients and their families. In contrast, The Guardian’s take on the craze was far more positive; describing the videos as a morale boost, which I wholeheartedly agree with. Emergency workers often find themselves under immense pressure and scrutiny, so it’s essential they maintain high morale and have a bit of fun to let off steam; otherwise, they risk becoming disillusioned, or worse, suffering with their mental health.

All this said, these online approaches, connecting the public with services and vice versa, haven’t been without detractors. Several commenters have accused emergency workers of disregarding their duties and social distancing in search of online fame, while others see the whole practice as a waste of time.

As an enthusiast and follower of their presence and representations online, I believe social media outlets are allowing us all to explore new ways to keep alert and safe. With many services having to halt real-world community activities and contact, podcasting, vlogs, and TikTok challenges offer a modern way to reach people while further highlighting the structures, essential services, messages and advice we have, until now, taken for granted.

They also emphasise our collective humanity and purpose with humour, allowing serious messages to be conveyed, and helping the public to better understand what these services face. As someone who sat through school assemblies conducted by emergency workers, I remember the importance of the advice being memorable and engaging, so the message isn’t lost.

Not all approaches work for everyone, and while dancing videos aren’t a traditional staple of community safety, they serve as a point of entry for people who might not otherwise pay attention. Those who aren’t interested can always press ‘unfollow’. Even if, unlike me, you’re not subscribed to the feed of every fire service in Britain, I’ve noticed a chain reaction of people sharing the more humorous content.

As attention spans shorten, and we social distance, increasing and diversifying content via social media allows the important messages to stay fresh in our hearts and minds. During these remarkable times, through this 21st-century medium, the emergency services continue to keep us safe, even when we don’t have to call 999.

Jacob Waterall

Jacob Waterall is 28-year-old, full-time content writer living in Sheffield. He writes fiction in his spare time, with work featured in Hive’s Surfing the Twilight anthology. He also has a geeky blog, which he really needs to update! Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.