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Posted at 01:30 PM ET, 09/21/2011

Press tempers flare over Gray’s move to stifle police and fire communications

The District’s local press corps assailed Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and his public safety team Wednesday over the administration’s move to encrypt police radios and stifle the fire department’s popular Twitter feed.

In a tense exchange that dominated Gray’s biweekly press conference, television and print reporters accused Gray of backtracking on his campaign pledge that he would run the most transparent administration in city history. The back and forth culminated with some reporters accusing Gray of “secrecy” and the mayor responding the press was being “disrespectful.”

For decades, local media and some residents have relied on police scanners to identify potential news stories and monitor breaking crime events. But in an Internet era where anyone can be a news gatherer, the D.C. Fire Department embraced Twitter as a vehicle for providing real-time updates for the public about fire department calls.

When the National Christmas Tree was toppled on the Mall during a windstorm in February, for example, the fire Department turned to Twitter to get the news out.

More recently, its Twitter feed provided residents with numerous updates during Hurricane Irene and the aftermath of last month's earthquake. Residents also use the feed to keep abreast of why that fire truck or ambulance was whizzing past their house.

“2928 Cortland Pl NW - small electrical fire in bsmt - light haze - no injury NOTE: trees down in area (klingle Rd),” a Tweet from Aug. 30 stated.

The Fire Department, which tweeted under the @dcfireems handle, now has nearly 10,000 Twitter followers. But the feed largely went dark late last month, enraging many loyal followers on Twitter.

In response to reporters’s questions, Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbee said the department decided that the information now needed to be “filtered” before it is placed on Twitter.

“We looked at some of the information that was going out over that Twitter account and decided it needed to be filtered through the director of communications first,” Ellerbee said. “If incorrect information comes out from a Twitter account, or it imperils another operation in D.C., that puts all of us at risk.”

The local press corps, including The Washington Post, responded that adding a potentially bureaucratic layer to a public information officer’s Tweet could delay the timely release of information.

After repeated shouting matches between Gray and several reporters, the administration vowed that the fire department’s Twitter feed will be back up and running soon.

“We will work with our public safety leadership to flush out the concerns,” Gray said.

But the encryption of police radios will likely remain permanent, officials said.

Paul Quander, the deputy mayor for public safety, said officials have determined that a public airing of police communication could compromise ongoing criminal investigations.

“It’s an issue of how we are going to protect the public,” Quander said. ”The world we are living in is changing, and we have to adapt, or we are going to face the consequences... There is no other city like the District of Columbia. There is no other city that is the nation’s capital.”

Instead of relying on the scanner, Quander said, reporters and the public will have to have their sources or public information officers inform them about breaking news events.

“We want you to be creative,” Quander said.

By  |  01:30 PM ET, 09/21/2011

 
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