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Public information in your Nation's Capital: Encryption of police communications, fire department Twitter feed goes dark, cameras seized by police. What does it all mean? A guest column by Gerald Baron.

For those interested in how fire departments and other public agencies communicate with the press and the public there was a fascinating exchange (above) at yesterday's regularly scheduled press briefing by District of Columbia Mayor Vincent Gray. The press was in somewhat open rebellion about a couple of policies of the DC government that seem to contradict Mayor Gray's pledge of an open and transparent administration.

It started with a question by WJLA-TV reporter Suzanne Kennedy about two recent moves by city officials. One was the encryption of all radio communications for the Metropolitan Police Department (DC Police) and the other, the halting of a very active and popular Twitter feed by the DC Fire & EMS Department that alerted the press and the public to fires, accidents, shootings and other emergencies that fire and ems crews responded to.

The Twitter account had almost 10,000 followers and had provided more than 11,000 Tweets. It had become a primary alerting source for the news media and private citizens. The last Tweet was on August 30. Shortly after the Tweets stopped the police department began encrypting its radio traffic with the justification that smart phone apps allow criminals to listen in on the department's communications much in the way radio scanners have done for decades.

So, the news media and the public lost two important sources that helped them provide oversight of city officials and operations.

Let's make it clear that the best we can tell these both are legal and lawful policies of the District of Columbia government. It is within the rights of city officials to take these actions. There is no law that requires them to maintain a Twitter account or keep their radio communications open. But is this a smart route to go if you want to have transparent and open government in the 21st Century?

There are some things you should read as you ponder this. Here are accounts of the press conference from The Washington Post, The Washington Times and  DCist.com.

Then there is the reaction, not just from the press, but by the public, via Twitter, over the loss of Tweets from @dcfireems and the comments made by the DC Fire & EMS Department's Director of Communications Lon Walls (click here and scroll down). Many blasted Walls for believing that "social media is for parties". In the Washington Times and DCist.com articles you will see Walls is not a fan of Twitter.

Also, take the time to read the column below posted yesterday by Gerald Baron on his blog Crisis Comm for the site Emergency Management. Gerald is a respected leader in the world of crisis communications who wrote the book I often quote, Now is Too Late. The column also mentions something we have covered numerous times on STATter911.com. That is the interference by public safety officials of picture taking by the public and press. We previously posted two such incidents involving DC Police officers that occurred this year (I have added the video below of those stories).

Here's my brief message on this to the administration of Mayor Gray and anyone else who has the responsibility of communicating with the public for routine every day events and in times of crisis. That little thing in everyone's hands that always seems to be a part of their body is how most people get their news these days. It's also how they share news with others, whether it's taking pictures with the camera that is a part of it or using the applications on it like Twitter and Facebook. Those people who are constantly holding and operating these devices are the people you serve and the people who pay your salaries. They want and expect to know what's going on almost instantly via that device. The city has the opportunity to be a valued, trusted and instant source of information that their citizens can rely on every day and in times of major emergencies. And a source that reaches directly to the public without first having to go through the news media. Don't deride it, don't confiscate it, don't ignore it. Instead, embrace it and the reality of how people now communicate.

But enough from me. Here are some words on this subject from a real expert::

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

by Gerald Baron

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.

Above is a June 19 story about a camera confiscated by DC Police after a citizen took pictures of an arrest on a public street.

Above is a story about a July 3 incident where DC Police confronted a man taking pictures of a traffic stop.

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Comments - Add Yours

  • Chip Chipperson

    Mayor Gray is just trying to keep the Fires, Stabbings, beatings and shootings a big ol secret.
    That way the cizens in the District are blind to whats really going on………If you don't hear it or read it then it never happened
    Am I Wrong?
    P.S
    The Fems Administrator is a JOKE
    But you guys already new that

    • Anonymous

      Tss…Tss.
       

  • mike

    How's that transparency thing working out for you, Vince?

  • HOOKMAN

    Yeah and the same idiots that are constantly glued to their phones are some of the ones that cross the street while texting, ride their bike while talking on their phone and of course the more poplular talking on your phone while driving….WHO GIVES A RATS PATOOTIE if there's Twitter or Spitter in this world…..We all lived without this crappola for many many years and if we wanted our news, we either listened to the radio or we waited for the local news channel at 6pm to come on…….If your in DC and your concerned about fires, accidents, traffic etc….My suggestion is to tune into WTOP or some other AM radio station, because if its important, they will tell you….If the world is coming to an end, I'm quite sure every news channel will interupt their regularly scheduled program to tell you the bad news……..If you can't tell, I'm not a Twitter fan, don't embrace the 21st century technology or the most interested when it comes to Iphones, Ipods, Ipads etc….Wake up America and stop EXPECTING things….Another suggestion if your getting the Twitter DT's, is to go to Radio Shack and buy a scanner, this way you won't miss out on the action, however, if your so glued to your phone and Twitter, you must not be employed because you wouldn't have time to work……..

    • dave statter

      So glad you are back with such enlightened views Hook. I am not all that big fan of Twitter either. But it doesn’t matter whether you embrace it or I embrace it. It’s a fact of life that’s how people get their news these days. I know it comes via the Pony Express where you live.

      Everyone bitches about the news media getting your message wrong. But here you have a way around them to deal directly with the folks you serve. You can thumb your nose at it but the Twitter feed was really a success. A smart way to do business.

      Come sit in one of my classes and I will explain all of this to you.

      Statter

  • Tony C.

    I just love how a big part of the new administration (both of the City and the Fire/EMS Agency) was to make their responsibilities more transparent.  As we have seen and we have been living, the opposite is true.  But, knowledge is power and the more knowledge I have compared to you makes me more powerful!!  So, tuck your shirt in and get back to work.

  • James

    I don't have a problem with the encrypting radios…I think pulling the olug on Pete's Tweets is stupid

  • RayC

    I can't say that I disagree with securing police communications — the new movie 'Drive' opens with the 'bad guys' listening in on the police channel to avoid capture — but my son and son-in-law are DC firefighters. DCFire&EMS twitter stream is the only way to keep tabs on them. Technology makes instant information available — and if misinformation gets published, a correction can be posted just as quickly. When newspapers get it wrong, it stays wrong for 24 hours.

  • Molly

    First, they started putting all surface mail in opaque envelopes so the public couldn't read every single piece of correspondance, then they refused to cc (and bcc) the entire population of the District on department emails, and now this??  The next logical step is to disguise fire trucks to look like normal delivery trucks so we can never be quite certain there is an emergency happening.  How will we ever know anything???
    For once I agree with hookman.

  • Ralphy Boy

    I believe all public safety radios, PO PO, Fire and EMS should all be encripted. It's nobody's business what is said over public safety radios.
    I think the press sometimes is the "Intelligence division" for terrorists—way too much information being given out to the public about capabilities, weaknesses….and whats with the "reporter imbedded with the 5th cavalry"   shouldn't be happening at all.
    Take all the photos, film you want at a scene but the emergency services don't have to spoon feed you all the radio communications they have. OY VEY

  • Chip Chipperson

    Tssss….FILTERED? What is it a glass of water or summtin……tsss…….I dont know

  • Chip Chipperson

    dcfems twitter is back online however im sure its just Smoke and Mirrors.

  • Nepotism

    Dave, why hasn't the nepotism issue made Statter? The same council hearing and the same issue with transparency.  Chief Ellerbe promoting his brother to Battalion Chief as soon as he is ellgible.  I am sure that there are several other senior, highly qualified Captains that will have issue with this; not just the issue with nepotism and the DC rules against it.  This is not transparent, this is "Gray" politics.  Nothing is clear.

  • Hookfan

    I, too, am glad Hook is back.  He could always be counted on to bash anything the previous administration did.  It appears he will be just as reliable at defending anything this administration does. His silence on LRB's drive to eliminate a shift and retalitory transfers of FIREFIGHTERS(among many things) is deafening.  And what, no comment on LRB promoting his brother??  But  I am sure he would have been just as supportive of the previous administration had Rubin suspended the Twitter feed  . . .

  • HOOKMAN

    Dave, I'm back after a long hiatus from blogging…lol….I will take your class as long as I can remain anonymous…..
    Molly, I will expect some disagreements from you in the future…ha
    Hookfan….thanks….I was more than connected and in the know with the last administration and for good reason. The current administration has not affected me because I've been gone and so far the only thing I've heard about the current administration is rumors. I'm rjust returning to work and the last thing I need is to talk openly about an administration that Ive not been apart of….Its ok for you to talk openly and remain anonymous, because nobody knows who you are. However, people know who I am…..Remember, I went after Rubin and company, both online and offline. Can you say that you can do the same to this administration. Is it up to me to go head to head with Ellerbe because you lack the B@#*S  to do so……I manned up during the last administration and laid it on the line…..Are you man enough to do the same or do you need someone else to do that for you…..If you want to man up to the last administration and the current, let me know, because I know where they both hang out after hours…..However, if you choose to accept this mission, it will take a set to do it…Are you up for the challenge, or do you need me to do it for you and the rest who want to talk smalk, but want to remain anonymous because they know they couldn't man up….just sayin…..

    • dave statter

      Be my guest Hook. I will have you Tweeting in no time. And by the way, how do you think a previous generation of firefighters feels about you getting your news or commenting on STATter911? What’s the difference. The world is changing. Get with it man.

      Statter

    • Hookfan

      No, I don't think you need to "go head to head with Ellerbe" but taking the time to defend any of this administration's actions makes you look like a nut hugger.  And stop with the "only thing I know is rumors" line.  He promoted his brother and made retalitory transfers against firefighters.The elimination of a shift threat  is in the Union minutes. All those are in black and white. And I would be surprised if you don't personally know someone who has been on the receiving end of one of his uplifting firehouse visits. And, yes, I will remain anonymous because I know what the new administrator is capable of both from past and present experience and wouldn't want to place my job in jeopardy.  So I have no b@#ls and you are a nut hugger. I'd say we are about even.
      Oh, as far as the Twitter thing goes, we pay the PIO to get on TV and the radio to give "approved" incident information and HSEMA sends out DCRSAN texts in real time as an incident develops. I think the PIO can handle a Twit.   But, Hookman, we do have at least one thing in common (probably more)-  I have no idea how to Twitter or Tweet or Twit or whatever it is.

  • HOOKMAN

    True, but I don't feel the need to comment on what I know or think I know with in a splits second time..I know there isn't anyone relying on me for updates on anything important, so what I say on here or another blog versus what's put on DCFEMS Twitter page, I think are quite different…..However, maybe oneday I'll Tweet….lol

  • MDF

    Honestly, I don't see the big problem with MPD's communications being encrypted. I can name 20 metro jurisdictions across the country who have taken this step. Now, 'encrypted' is a loaded term. Looking at radioreference, it shows that MPD uses a Motorola Smartzone system, which I think allows for encrypted and unencrypted communications setups. But if the bad guys are using the information that goes out over the air, then why wouldn't MPD take steps to secure it? It sounds like the media is crying over spilled milk. Fire and EMS operations are one thing, law enforcement I think is another. Over time, Uniden or someone will probably build a scanner that can decode this. Maybe the APCO25 capable scanners already can, I dunno.
    On the other hand, there was no good reason to cut the FEMS twitter account. Hookman, you can cry about its irrelevance all you want, but this is a new era, brother. If people (public, media, whackers, anyone) can get their information from a passive media source like twitter, then that means one less dispatcher tied up on a phone line trying to give the Statters of the world (heheheheheh, no offense Dave) the skinny on the lastest worker in southeast. Put another way, if the account offers details on a rescue, or other positive thing that FEMS members have done, maybe a media reporter wants to pick up on that and lead at 6:00 with it. We all win, then, right?

    • dave statter

      For the record, this is encryption, and not just a flavor of digital, which by the Electronics Communications Pricacy Act would be illegal to unscramble, even if you could.

      I understand the claim for officer safety and maybe they are being pro-active. But if you think you are going to take that step, which set back interoperability significantly between MPD and the surrounding jurisdictions, you would hope the would be more open about the problems that have lead to this development.

      Scanners have been around for decades. They are much more useful to the criminal element because they allow them to listen to a specific channel. With the scanner apps on smart phones, in most cases it is someone else’s scanner scanning multiple police zones that you have no control over. So, with a scanner (which again, have been around for more than 40 years and tunable & crystal controlled radios for much longer) the criminal can punch in the specifc police zone where they want to do their deed. Not the case with the smart phone app. So, why is the smart phone app suddenly the problem?

      Also, MPD has had for 15 years or more encryption for its SOD and other operations that some might deem sensitive.

      Like Gerald Baron, I look at the bigger picture. When you shut down Twitter feeds of other agencies, you confiscate cameras and cut off an important way for the public and press to have oversight of the police, isn’t time to worry a bit about what is being hidden? Read what the U.S. Court of Appeals says about this oversight and how important it is to our way of life in the opinion I linked to.

      There needs to be a balance and right now I don’t think the DC government and particularly the police force has found it.

      Statter

  • HOOKMAN

    MDF…..for the record, I was sulking and never once during my post did I cry…..anyways, I realize the importance to some people that things like Twitter are a must and can't live without it, however, by the number of followers versus the population of the Washington, DC metro area, not all have grasped it…..Hmmm maybe the CIA has a Twitter account and will post all their goings on, after all, we need to know everything right now,…..When does it end…..I realize everything on the DCFEMS Twitter is stuff people can find out on their own and checking Twitter makes it much more easier, but what if there's a slip or something that is posted which would give and arsonist, terrorist or bank robber a heads up…..I know its far fetched, but at what limits do we set at who needs to know what….

  • HOOKMAN

    sorry Hookfan….I left you a long winded comment, but currently that comment is under the watchful eye of Statter911 security and has not been posted….insert roll eyes…..

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  • RJ

    So let me get this straight. Villans have been using police scanners for years to evade the police? Wow so the federal law that has been on the books since the 70"s that promises 20 years if you're caught with a police scanner in the commission of a crime was never used by ANY prosecuter? what bull^&*$ is that? So drug dealers were using scanners to evade buy and busts, arsonists were using scanners to find out where the fire departrment was before setting a fire? The fix is simple… If you don't want it heard, DONT TALK ABOUT IT! I have had a scanner since i was 8 years old and i have discovered one thing, if you want to evade being heard, THERE ARE WAYS TO DO IT that dont require a million dollar expendature. (i ought to know, as a 911 operator i came up with one that is still being used and it works so good i was suprised that nobody ever thought of it before)–no i aint gonna say what it is and if i did, you'd laugh at the simpliicity—The public's right to know and have oversight about what the police are doing is essential to a free society, (otherwise rodney king's story would have never been known) and anyone that thinks that all public safety communications should be "secret" because of privacy will allways get the question of "why" (besides, how will the radio trunk the smoke? and whats so secret about a fire?)From a FD point of view, its cheep PR because i recall a citizen who once said that "if i dont know what you folks are doing, its kind of hard for me to support what you want". i dont think EMS suffers too much because no system i know of transmits names over the air so there is no privacy issues there. The cops need to understand that the publc needs to know so that they can trust what they do. Without oversight be it from police scanners or direct observation while videotaping, if they are doing their job right, they have nothing to fear

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