Social media empowers Sacramento Fire Department to shape its own story

As fires erupted throughout Sacramento in recent weeks, journalists, politicians and the public flocked to the Sacramento Fire Department’s Twitter page.

The Internet allows anyone with a smartphone to become a broadcaster, and the Fire Department is taking full advantage.

Gone are the days when the agency’s public information officer would sit around waiting for calls from reporters. The spokesman is now effectively the Fire Department’s own news reporter – recording and editing video while gathering facts for a post on Facebook.

“In the past, the public information officer wouldn’t do this,” said Roberto Padilla, a firefighter and spokesman for the Sacramento Fire Department. “We no longer need media. We are our own media.”

As an employee of the department, Padilla has inside access to breaking scenes that mainstream media can only record from afar. He recently hopped on a fire truck ladder to take video of a fast-developing blaze at a south Sacramento recycling plant and was so close to the blaze that his iPhone 6 shut down several times.

The behind-the-scenes videos have attracted many fans, and media outlets, including The Sacramento Bee, have republished the clips. The raw video can be captivating because firefighters are usually the first to respond to emergency situations.

“I think it’s safe to say we reach millions of people every month,” Padilla said, noting that the audience is both from users of the Internet and viewers of mainstream media.

Padilla, 38, said firefighters traditionally viewed mainstream media with suspicion because outlets tend to focus on the bad – apartments burning – rather than the good – that some units were saved.

Now with a public platform to disseminate news, the Fire Department has the ability to more strongly influence media coverage. For instance, Padilla was able to recently call attention to the fact that an electrical substation was saved from a fire that erupted at an auto-repair shop next door.

“We held that fire from jumping into that substation,” Padilla said. “Because of our reporting and platform, news outlets quickly recognized us. We’re empowered. … Now we’re able to tell our story through our words.”

Dena Erwin, a former reporter at the Auburn Journal who is now a spokeswoman for the Placer County Sheriff’s Office, said social media have helped detectives find suspects.

“It’s huge for us,” Erwin said. “We have solved numerous crimes. People just want to turn bad people in.”

The enormous reach and power of social media was evidenced during a recent ride-along with Padilla, with large audiences tuning in for his live video broadcasts via Periscope, a platform owned by Twitter.

A brief Periscope broadcast of a firefighter showing off wildland gear garnered 700 views. An hour later, at Tiscornia Beach, Padilla conducted a second Periscope broadcast of the volunteer Drowning Accident Rescue Team, which drew 500 viewers.

There is no script. Padilla rehearses briefly before each broadcast, speaking with the authority of a network anchor. But he wasn’t only presenting information – the live audience was giving him feedback, chiming in with questions and seemingly random comments.

“He’s hot,” a Periscope viewer said of Chris Black, 27, the Sacramento firefighter giving the wildland demonstration. The broadcast drew audiences from countries as varied as Germany and South Africa.

Padilla emphasized that the content he is producing helps newspapers, radio and TV stations, especially when they are not able to dispatch someone the scene.

But Marc Cooper, a recently retired journalism professor from the University of Southern California, raised concerns that traditional media may resort to running what he called video press releases.

“A police department, government official or a fire department isn’t going to use social media to hold themselves accountable,” Cooper said. “They’re going to do it to put their side of the story out.”

He added, “What we don’t want to see are lazy editors and news directors just unquestioningly picking up content without verifying there may be another side, two or three to that story.”