A Social Media Policy for SAR

If you are rescued by a Search and Rescue team tomorrow, what kind of behaviour would you expect from the team? I know that most people would probably just be grateful to be warm and dry, but the question comes up in the context of social media, and what it means to behave in a professional manner.

Let’s say you call an ambulance, and the paramedics come to your house and perform some service. Sure, you’re happy that they’ve come and perhaps saved your life. But how would you feel if one of them took out a camera and snapped your photo? What about later when you saw that photo on the internet via Twitter or Facebook?

That would be unexpected.

In fact I would go so far as to state that there is no circumstance where it would be permissible for a paramedic to take a photo of a subject, or to even ask if they could take one. Consider the situation you’re in; you’ve just been saved, you’re relieved, and you may even be suffering from some after effects of whatever it was that caused you to call for help. You may feel such gratitude that you couldn’t say no to a simple request for a photo.

I’m not a legal expert, but I do know that a lot of law in this area revolves around what a reasonable person would expect — and is in fact enshrined in Section Eight of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and defended in the Fourth Amendment in the US Constitution. The question is, would a reasonable person expect Search and Rescue members to take their picture and put it on the internet?

For members of the public and the media, it’s a different story. The mandate of the media is to report, and much of the imagery they use to report the news is exempted from these privacy laws because it is assumed to be for the common good that the public knows about events such as SAR. So someone getting off a helicopter in a public parking lot after being rescued would not have a reasonable expectation to privacy — as long as a news reporter or member of the public took the photo.

However, if a member of the SAR team took photos while on the search, and sold them to the media, that could easily be considered a breach of implied trust between the subject and their rescuers.

Professionalism

Now, I’m not trying to hold SAR volunteers to as high a standard as professionals such as doctors and lawyers. If this expectation of privacy were tested in a court of law, it could easily be decided that there isn’t one, and it would be perfectly fine for SAR members to post photos of everything they do on the internet.

However, we do strive for professional levels of training, skill, and expertise. Most people think we’re paid professionals, and even the media tends to refer to us as “workers” or “Rescue Officials” who are sometimes “off-duty” (when in fact we’re never either). So why shouldn’t we also strive to behave as professionals with regard to our subject’s privacy?

I’ve asked some of my SAR associates in eastern Canada (Quebec and Ontario), and south of the border (California, Washington State) this question and their answers are also very telling. In both those places, the police take a much more hands-on approach to SAR than they do in BC and there is no uncertainty involved. A SAR task is a police investigation and anyone discovered posting information about the investigation is subject to some pretty harsh penalties; removal from the team being the minimum, with civil or criminal charges considered to be normal.

The Need for a Policy

So why am I posting this article?

Social media and recording devices are pervasive now — everyone has video and still cameras with them all of the time and SAR members are no different. People want to tell other people what they’ve been doing, especially SAR teams who do some exciting rescues. SAR teams are also non-profits, and often wish to raise the profile of the team in order to attract donations. Hence, many of them have Blogs, and accounts on Twitter and Facebook.

Now I’m not saying that anyone is doing anything vastly wrong, but I am saying that SAR teams, and SAR members have to be reminded what constitutes professional behaviour. Ultimately the police of jurisdiction are usually in charge of any search or rescue and it is they that have the last word about how to deal with the media, and what if any information is released.

Any media policy should stress that the individual members and team are expressly not allowed to release personal details of the subjects we rescue, or use their information in any way unless the RCMP have already released the info if they deem it to have a greater good in publicizing the search. This includes any images or video where the subject can be clearly identified.

For example, on this blog I’ve written about Tyler Wright and I’ve posted his image. However, I’ve only been able to do so because the RCMP released the information. The Wright family has also posted a blog with images and details of his route. These were deemed important so the public could identify him. However, as a SAR member I may have been given information or photos of the subject that were not released. None of that information has ever been posted.

In fact every SAR member in BC knows what they are allowed to talk about; its taught to us in the basic SAR courses and in the more advanced leadership and management courses. We can talk about the personal experiences of the search — where we went, what the conditions were like, possibly what search techniques were used. We can mention non-identifying information such as the person’s age, gender, where they went missing, where we are looking. We can talk about anything that the Police have already released, and no more.

It would be helpful for SAR teams to develop a Social Media Policy in order to guide their members on how to behave in this era of image and video sharing.

Recommendations

  1. Every task is a missing person’s case, a medical rescue, or the coroner’s office is in charge. As such, SAR teams are delegated their authority from those agencies; police, ambulance and Coroner’s service. Those agencies are in charge and make the decisions on what information about the subject should be released, if any.
  2. SAR members should never take photos or record video or audio of a subject unless it is for the purposes of the search, or they are directed to by the relevant authority. Even recording images of the subject can be seen as unprofessional. Any images, video or audio should not be released to the public unless directed.
  3. Any method of publicizing media releases on the part of the RCMP or subject’s family should, if possible, link back to the original source press release. As detailed in my previous post, this is to maintain veracity, and allow the originating agency to update the information as needed.

In general, and from a common sense perspective, you have to ask yourself… how would a professional actin in this situation. Once you use this rule of thumb I’m sure you can’t go wrong.

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6 comments on “A Social Media Policy for SAR
  1. Couldn’t agree more. I’ve written several social media policies recently. Many organizations and businesses are behind with regards to developing and implementing a social media policy. It’s nice to see you advocating for one in the field of SAR.

    • Christian; SAR teams, especially those that rely heavily on donations, tend to want to raise their profile; they somehow see themselves either as journalists or as sources for journalists. This isn’t wrong per se, but the lack of training on what is and what isn’t acceptable is apparent. There’s been privacy issues, chain-of-command issues, and many problems with information custody (maintaining the veracity of information passed from person to person by keeping the link to the definitive source).

      I feel that the last issue is the most important in a missing child scenario as the tweets and posts get out of hand, there is a huge amount of misinformation, and no link to those who are in charge of the investigation which should be the police.

      I’ve read social media policies from various agencies including police and would love your feedback if you have the time and inclination.

  2. Labman says:

    Down here in the States, this is a non-issue. We have strict policy to avoid all contact with the media. In New York, the DEC Rangers are typically responsible for searches and we work under their umbrella. State Police may also be involved. Either of those agencies are allowed to speak with the media, we are expressly forbidden. Pictures? No way, no how, not for any purpose. If you want to take some, be willing to surrender your device to the authorities.

    • Labman, is it really a non-issue for all of the states?

      I know even travelling across Canada that there are vast differences between how SAR teams are managed. Ontario and Quebec, since they are managed under the auspices of the provincial police forces, are under tighter control than we are in BC. Even here in BC each SAR team has a different relationship with it’s local “regional district” and municipality (sometimes more than one of each). Most of BC is under the RCMP who are more than happy to defer all SAR operations to us, but some teams have municipal police forces — for instance my team has the RCMP in one two of the municipalities, and a municipal force in another.

      I would prefer it if someone “higher up” would set up a policy because I see teams messing things up from time to time.

  3. Len hopkins says:

    Really? Everyone knows that you act professionally and don’t post anything or say anything. Duh.

  4. In theory it is something “everyone knows” but despite that there are constant leaks of information, pictures and videos outside of the chain of command. We are trying to get the “authorities” to say something about it.

    I for one am getting very tired of seeing it happen. It makes us all look bad.

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