DC Police and Fire Move Public Communication Back Toward the Dark Ages

Encrypted Radio and "filtered" tweets raise storm of protests from media and citizens

 

This story sort of makes me wonder if DC Mayor Vincent Gray has his communication staff learning cuneiform writing. First this blog post arrived concerning the Mayor's press conference in which he announced that the DC Police would be using encrypted radio, and that the Fire and EMS Service would be in future "filtering" their Twitter feeds. HuffPost reported on the clamp down of communication in this article.

It's really quite bizarre. Every after action report of any consequence of major events highlights the need for interoperable communication and by encrypting all radio messages they certainly have sent interoperability concerns into the closet. Maybe there is sufficient safety justification, I hope so, because if this trend continues the history of major event management shows that lives will be lost because of interoperability issues.

But my primary concern is shutting down Twitter. @dcfireems has been a very popular means of communicating in DC about emergency events. With nearly 10,000 followers it is very clear that it has become the primary means used by DC media to keep the public informed, but equally important is the fact that the public itself is kept informed through those tweets.

In talking with a source close to these matters in DC, it appears that the encrypted radio decision and putting the brakes on Twitter are related and both coming from DC Police. As DC Police moved toward keeping their communication under wraps, it was troubling them that Fire EMS service was tweeting openly about things--some of which involved police. So they felt they couldn't keep the wraps on their communication and allow a sister agency to keep talking. This move by DC Police is in addition to their apparent policy of confiscating the phones of citizen journalists documenting arrests for the apparent purpose of capturing evidence. This is deeply troubling.

Needless to say, those following the Twitter account are not happy--both reporters and the public. The Twitter conversation gives an indication of their thoughts on this.

However, the announcement about this compounded the problem by being less than transparent and honest. The last tweet from Fire/EMS as I understand it was August 31. Initially it was explained that this was because the tweeter, Pete Piringer, had gone on vacation. Then in the press conference it was explained that it was shut down because it had imperiled the operation of another (apparently federal) agency. The real explanation, provided by my source, was only hinted at--that police want to keep the wraps on things.

What absolutely amazes and appalls me coming from communicators in our nation's capital are comments like these:

"After the press conference, Lon Walls, the department's communication director and a former journalist himself, said that accuracy was vital. "I'd rather be slow and right than fast and wrong," he said.

"Social media is for parties. We ain't givin' parties," he added, arguing that safety and sensitive issues had to be considered before tweeting out information on emergencies."

Social media is for parties? I'd rather be slow? Break out the clay tablets, boys and girls. No doubt there are operational concerns with tweeting, no doubt policies and controls need to apply, no doubt mistakes can easily be made with serious consequences. But because cars cause accidents doesn't mean we go back to horses and buggies. I certainly hope DC gets their inter-agency disagreements under control and some leadership is shown about today's realities of public communication.

 Update--additional info:

Here is a link to the press conference where the defense of the DC Police and Fire/EMS decisions regarding encrypted radio and Twitter changes were presented. You decide if they were convincing in their arguments.

 

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