The District’s press corps assailed Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and his public safety team Wednesday over the administration’s move to encrypt police radios and filter the fire department’s popular Twitter feed.
In a tense exchange that dominated Gray’s biweekly news conference, television and print reporters told Gray he was backtracking on his campaign pledge that his administration would be the most transparent in city history. The back and forth culminated with some reporters accusing Gray of “secrecy” and Gray responding that the news media was being “disrespectful.”
For decades, local news media and some residents have relied on police scanners to identify potential news stories and monitor breaking crime events. But in an Internet era in which anyone can be a news gatherer, the D.C. Fire Department embraced Twitter as a vehicle for providing real-time updates about department calls.
When the National Christmas Tree was toppled on the Mall during a windstorm in February, for example, the fire department used Twitter to get the news out.
More recently, the @dcfireems Twitter account provided residents with numerous updates during Hurricane Irene and the aftermath of last month’s earthquake. Residents could also keep abreast of fire or ambulance activity in their neighborhood.
The Twitter feed largely went dark late last month, enraging many loyal followers.
In response to reporters’ questions, Fire Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe said the department decided that the information now needs 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 . . . ,” Ellerbe 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.”
After reporters argued the new Twitter policy could slow the release of information, Gray said his administration would try to return to a format that provides timely updates.
“We will work with our public safety leadership to flush out the concerns,” Gray said.
But the encryption of police radios will likely be permanent, officials said.
“It’s an issue of how we are going to protect the public,” said Paul Quander, deputy mayor for public safety. “The world we are living in is changing, and we have to adapt, or we are going to face the consequences.”