We talk with @FDNY about running a 'life-saving' Twitter feed
Can Twitter save a life? Maybe if it's used the right way.
At least that's the idea behind the FDNY's official Twitter account, @FDNY, which two weeks ago won the first-ever "Weather Channel #LifeSavingHero Award" at the fourth annual Shorty Awards. (Think the Oscars for Twitter.)
The account, about two years old, sends a handful of updates throughout the day, focusing on two-alarm or larger fires, general safety tips, rescue stories and department information. Paired with its official Facebook page, the department has an immediate reach of over 100,000 followers.
Sitting behind a keyboard typing each update is 34-year-old Emily Rahimi, a brunette Manhattanite who, during the department's Shorty Awards acceptance speech, was praised by no less than Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano for her work on the account.
Rahimi, a graduate of Northwestern and DePauw universities, moved to New York in 2000 after earning her master's. Fresh from Illinois, she started out in the city working in magazines, where she stayed for a little more than a year. Then came 9/11.
"I started to realized that perhaps my career path wasn't as great for me as I originally thought," she says.
In the aftermath of the attacks, Rahimi volunteered at the World Trade Center, eventually falling into work with nonprofit organizations, then finally the FDNY in 2005 to write for department newsletters and work in its public relations department.
At around the same time, social media as a "thing" was taking off. (Twitter launched in 2006, the same year Facebook opened to the general public.) Seeing a chance for expansion of the FDNY's outreach efforts, Rahimi brought a social strategy to her superiors, who, after some mild cajoling, agreed to let her go full-on digital with the department.
"All of us were a little nervous," Rahimi says. "We weren't completely sure how people how would respond to it, we weren't sure what we were opening ourselves up to, so I promised to star very slowly."
Prior to running the department's social platforms – including YouTube and Flickr accounts, with a forthcoming presence on foursquare and Tumblr – Rahimi had no experience directly in social media. But once it became obvious that other companies were leveraging social, "we knew it would be a great opportunity [for the FDNY] to reach a demographic we weren't reach through traditional media," Rahimi says.
So far, feedback is generally a mix of FDNY questions from New Yorkers, appreciation for publishing info on fires, Rahimi's own tweets from the field when big news breaks, and, oddly enough, firefighters from other countries looking for details about the department.
And, because this is still Twitter, the account has not been without its share of, er, less than imperative help requests.
"We had one guy who wrote in once saying there was a bird trapped on a pole asking for help," she says. "We always get kind of random ones from time to time that kind of stump me."
Thankfully, she says, no one has replaced calling 9-1-1 with tweeting at her. (Yet.)
It's impossible to know whether @FDNY was the first official twitter feed for a fire department in the country, but it almost certainly has the largest following. Los Angeles' fire department, with the next-highest number of followers, has about 19,000; Boston's has about half of New York's.
Because there was no model for what a fire department's Twitter feed should look like, Rahimi essentially invented it.
"I definitely kind of found my way on my own," she says. "But I think a lot of the larger fire departments have started doing it," she says.
Departments in other cities – and even other countries – have occasionally come to her for advice, and does get some help from the city's Chief Digital Officer Rachel Sterne to talk strategy.
(Still, for all Rahimi's success, her unofficial crosstown competition at @NYPDNews has about a 6,000-follower lead on Twitter, albeit they've had two years' lead time.)
"From the Twitterverse to Times Square, the FDNY is dedicated to keeping everyone safe," Rahimi said in her Shorty Awards acceptance speech at the Times Center in midtown. (Video below.)
That, Rahimi says, is ultimately the purpose for endless tweets, status updates and photos. And though @FDNY is the first account to ever win such an award, Rahimi is happy just to be helping out.
"Maintaining it as a one-person team, especially as interesting grows, can have its challenges. And since it's a 24-hour thing, I have to make sure to get back to everyone as quickly as possible so I can help," she says. "But that's what makes it so fun."
Watch below as Emily Rahimi and Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano accept their Shorty Award:
Follow reporter Tim Herrera on Twitter: @tim_herrera