DC fire-EMS halts use of Twitter to get handle on data

The account is on hold while DC officials are trying to decide what information is safe to put online

By Andrea Noble and Tom Howell Jr.
The Washington Times

WASHINGTON — The D.C. government has temporarily halted use of one of its most popular Twitter accounts in order to get a tighter handle on information disseminated about emergency operations.

The District's Fire and Emergency Medical Services (EMS) Twitter account has been on hiatus since Aug. 30, when the communications officer who ran it went on vacation, officials said. The account, which provided real-time information on emergency incidents in the city ranging from traffic accidents to fatal shootings, has been suspended as officials decide what information is safe to put online.

"We looked at some of the information that was going out on the Twitter account, and decided it needed to be filtered through the director of communications first," Fire and EMS Chief Kenneth Ellerbe said on Wednesday at Mayor Vincent C. Gray's weekly press conference.

If incorrect information goes out on Twitter, he said, "it puts all of us at risk."

In a discussion with a reporter from The Washington Times prior to the hiatus of the fire department Twitter account, communications director Lon Walls was taken aback by a question about the account and was unaware that one existed.

In the time since learning of the account, he hasn't warmed to the idea.

"It's OK for parties and that type of stuff, but I'm not big on Twitter for issues of public safety," Mr. Walls said Wednesday.

Declining to elaborate on any specific incidents that led officials to freeze the account, Mr. Walls would only say it was recently brought to the department's attention that "incorrect or inappropriate" information was published through the account.

Close to 11,800 tweets have been issued through the fire department account, run by department spokesman Pete Piringer, since it was registered in February 2009. The tweets typically relayed information passed over fire department scanners about ongoing incidents.

In neighboring Prince George's County, Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department spokesman Mark Brady explained that he prefers to hold back on tweeting about ongoing incidents until he can confirm information.

"I've been an advocate of waiting to find out what happens with a call. I always wait until I find out it's a confirmed incident before I put something out," Mr. Brady said.

As a result, Mr. Brady's tweets often include links to a full account of an incident on his blog, complete with pictures. But he says he can see Mr. Piringer's approach to tweeting being helpful in cases when there are incidents in highly trafficked and busy areas.

"He would have a lot of followers who, if they saw something as far as fire and EMS activity, they could go to his Twitter account and find out what was going on," Mr. Brady said.

The filtered fire department Twitter account is expected to be back up and running in about a week, Mr. Walls said.

D.C. officials also cited safety as the reason police are opting for encrypted scanner technology, which will prevent the public from listening in to police calls. For decades, police scanners have been staples for crime reporters, but officials said nowadays tech-savvy criminals are also listening in using new technology.

With certain applications on an iPad, "the bad guys will know exactly what the police are doing at a specific time before they are ready to act," said Paul Quander, deputy mayor for public safety.

Officials have documented cases in which officers were in harm's way because of intercepted communications, Mr. Quander said. However, neither he nor fire officials would elaborate on specific examples or potential scenarios in which first responders could be imperiled.

Mr. Quander said that in the future journalists who rely on the communications will have to be "creative."

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