Last year, Pete Piringer, who had worked for decades as a public information officer for Fire and Emergency Medical Services in Washington, was transferred to another city agency after the Twitter account on which he wrote raised concerns among higher-ups, who believed sensitive information was being posted. District of Columbia Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe had told reporters he had decided Piringer's tweets needed to be "filtered," according to The Washington Post.
In Baltimore on June 20, Fire Battalion Chief Fred Ruff's popular Twitter feed, under the name @baltcityfire, largely fell silent. It had provided live, running updates about fire and police responses in the city and had amassed more than 2,200 followers, including many city journalists.
Just before updates on the feed slowed dramatically — it wasn't deleted entirely — Ruff, a 25-year veteran of the department, posted a burst of tweets saying the Fire Department had threatened to terminate him, and the Police Department had threatened to sue him, because of the account.
"Please let the politicians know that I am being possibly fired for telling the truth," he wrote.
Since then, he and city fire officials have largely kept mum on the issue.
Chief Kevin Cartwright, a fire spokesman, said that the incident had been "embellished to the 100th degree," that he had "no idea where the word termination came into play," and that Ruff was not being fired.
Guglielmi said police never threatened to sue Ruff, but that he called Cartwright to complain about improper tweets from Ruff's account that appeared official. "He used a generic logo, or some type of fire logo, that one could believe was an official account," Guglielmi said.
Ruff declined to comment for this article.
But many who had been following Ruff on Twitter responded to the situation with incredulity, criticizing the department for silencing an important source of information. Other firefighters on the site — there are many who actively tweet about their work, anonymously in some cases — pledged their support for Ruff.
Speculation about the demise of Ruff's feed has been rampant.
Fire Department members who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly and because they feared reprimand said they believe it was a purely political decision, made because Ruff — like many other firefighters on the site — had begun tweeting criticisms of the company closures.
The sources said fire and police officials became angry about several tweets by Ruff, including when he posted about an incident during the Sailabration events commemorating the War of 1812 during which a police officer accidentally tazed another officer.
Guglielmi said the Police Department mostly became concerned after Ruff tweeted that a juvenile was shot June 19 in West Baltimore, when the victim was in fact an adult. The 18-year-old later died.
"He put out unofficial and inaccurate information which led to phone calls from news agencies about whether a juvenile had been shot," Guglielmi said. "The police are the investigative agency of all shootings and homicides, and we prefer that we are the one that provides that information."
"They can tweet about union issues or about fire issues," he added. "It becomes unprofessional when you cross the lines into another agency's purview."
Public employees may have more latitude to discuss their government workplaces, but in many instances employers have legal standing to crack down on employees' online statements. A 2006 Supreme Court ruling, in Garcetti v. Ceballos, established that public employees are not protected by the First Amendment when speaking pursuant to their official duties, Hudson said.
Public employees can also face repercussions if they are writing online about their jobs while on duty, or writing things that could be considered "critical speech that causes some tangible harm or devastates morale, or puts the department in a terrible light," Hudson said.
As it drafts new social media guidelines, the city Fire Department is researching best practices around the country and bringing the fire unions into discussions about appropriate rules, Clack said. Once they are in place, the Fire Department will hold personnel accountable for infractions, he said.
"We will step in when we find out about them, and just tell the member or the person, 'This is not appropriate, and you need to stop,'" Clack said.
Baltimore firefighters union president Rick Hoffman said union attorneys will review a draft of the new policy but declined to comment further.
Some firefighters predicted that the policy would have little impact and would simply drive more fire personnel to start using social media anonymously.
Fire officials won't be able to ask them for their Twitter handles or passwords, under a law passed by the Maryland General Assembly this year that prohibits such social media requests from employers in the state.