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Social Media Gets Massachusetts Residents Involved in Public Safety

The area's Scanner Talk page on Facebook keeps consistent rules: no names, no house addresses and no disrespect.

by Linda Murphy, The Herald News, Fall River, Mass. / November 15, 2016

(TNS) -- While area police departments and firefighters are using social media to reach out to the community, social media groups are doing their part to support local public safety agencies.

A few months back, Nick Howard posted a message on the Fall River Scanner Talk Facebook group about Fall River police officer Charles Souza. The officer helped with Howard’s mother, who was rushed to the hospital, and a few days later, Souza stopped by the house to see how she was doing. Howard’s thank you to the police officer started a lengthy dialogue praising the city’s public safety officials.

Sometimes, the discussions on the Scanner Talk page turn into heated debates about what’s proper to post and what isn’t. When a group member posted a series of photos of the Sept. 28 multi-vehicle accident on Interstate 195 that resulted in the death of three people, the discussion was clearly divided between those who agreed or disagreed with the post. Some said it was the way things are in the era of social media, while others expressed concerns about loved ones seeing photos and recognizing a family member’s car, without having been officially notified. One of the groups’s administrators, Melissa St.Laurent reminded the string of posters the group is focused on “anything scanner related.”

Rob Leeds founded the Fall River Scanner Talk Facebook group two years ago after he was blasted in another group for posts about pit bulls on the loose in the city, based on information he heard on the scanner.

“I thought, there’s got to be some people out there who like to listen to the scanner,” said Leeds in recent phone interview. That was back in October, 2014.

It appears Leeds hunch was right. The closed group has 12,722 members. “It didn’t turn out how I envisioned it; I expected there’d be about 12 people,” he said.

Leeds said he listens to the scanner all the time, and so do the other administrators: StLaurent, Ken Paiva, Dawn Trahan and Jacquelyn Gagne-Bouchard. Their hobby, he said, is pretty much a second full-time job as they take turns posting from scanner calls and keeping a close eye on members’ posts.

“We try to keep the rules consistent: no names, no house addresses and no disrespect,” he said.

The last rule can be a tough one, he said, especially when it comes to hot button issues such as the opioid epidemic and people’s views on drug abuse amid numerous calls for overdoses.

The administrators have a list of about 2,000 people who have been blocked because they didn’t want to follow the rules. Some of those who where blocked formed spinoff groups that do post names and addresses heard on scanner calls, said Leeds.

Taking part in online conversation strings in various online groups can have its pitfalls though, said Dana Mayhew, a sociology and criminal justice professor at Bristol Community College. Without the visual cues of facial expressions, body language and tone of voice from face-to-face conversations, online discussions are more likely to result in mixed signals. “I’ve had students write in all caps not realizing that’s the online version of yelling. There’s the potential for misconstruing what people are saying in online discussions,” he said.

Additionally, online discussions embolden people to be more aggressive than they would be face-to-face, said Mayhew. “It’s easier to be meaner when you’re not face to face,” added Mayhew.

But it’s not all bad, he added. “Someone who’s very shy can feel like they have more of a voice and feel more confident” posting online.

As for those who don’t agree with some of the posts, such as the accident photos, he said they put a statement up stating, “If you don’t like it, you don’t have to be here.”

Leeds said he saw no problem with posting the photos of the accident, as there were no bodies showing. Additionally, the person who took the photos got out of his car to help at the scene of the accident. “My view? It happened, it’s better for people to know about it as soon as possible. People could also very quickly rule out that it wasn’t their family member.”

As the founder of the page, Leeds said he has been the target of threats. “They were going far enough to access my pictures and post them of my wife and kids for months with derogatory remarks.... It eventually went away.”

But there’s one group – public safety officials — that they make an effort to support.

“When I first started it, and when it started to get bigger and bigger, I was afraid of what the police and firefighters would think about it. We wanted to earn their respect. We do our best to support the police, EMS and fire and we have many of them in the group,” said Leeds.

It also took some time for Metro Fall River Fire Alerts founder Chris MacKenzie to gain the trust of local fire officials. Now when he shows up at fire with his camera, firefighters appreciate his work, he said. Sometimes, they even ask him to take their photos at the fire scenes.

MacKenzie, who was a volunteer firefighter for a time in Florida, started going to fires in Fall River in 2010 to take photos. At first, he started the page back in 2010 as a way to keep a record of the photos, but it took off with followers. MacKenzie and co-administrator Kevin Ratcliffe, a retired Tiverton Fire Captain and a staff of eight or nine others post information and photos from fires and the occasional bad accidents mostly focusing on Greater Fall River.

His motivation: “To support local fire departments. Now they look forward to it, when I don’t post something, they ask why I didn’t post it,” he said.

After a devastating fire on Hood Street destroyed three houses and left 20 people homeless, Sharon Furtado, wife of James Furtado, a 20-year Fall River firefighter, and Karen Santos started the Firefighters Wives Association Facebook Group to help the victims of the 2012 fire. The group’s initial mission was to aid victims with donations of clothing and household goods. Donations started flooding in and eventually they collected enough to fill a warehouse space, said Furtado. Now, she said, rather than trying to sort through all the donations to find items that might fit with victims’ needs, they sell the items to Savers, which buys in bulk and they use they money to buy gift cards so the fire victims can buy items to suit their needs.

©2016 The Herald News, Fall River, Mass. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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