I have to admit that I didn’t notice when the DC Fire/EMS Twitter account feed went silent on August 30. A fact that I continued not to recognize until I read the article “#Silence: Fire and EMS Twitter Feed to be ‘Filtered'” broadcast in a tweet just this morning. According to Chief Kenneth Ellerbe in a press conference yesterday, the account had not actually been shut down completely, but rather that its use was “being reconsidered” after what was explained as incorrect information sent out that had “imperiled the operation of another [federal] agency.” You can review the history of past tweets from @DCFireEMS and make your own determination of their sensitivity. The gag order, however, seems to contradict Mayor Vince Gray’s campaign promise of increased government transparency. Most shocking, though, were statements coming after the press conference when the new department communication director, Lon Walls, stated, “I’d rather be slow and right than fast and wrong” (a statement which one of the comments pointed out as a “false choice”) while adding, “Social media is for parties. We ain’t givin’ any parties.”
There were comments to the article pointing out that the “24-hour news cycle” of the 1980’s has been reduced to “milliseconds” these days and that information is currently being disseminated by various means regardless of its official confirmation or not. The mere fact that the fire department has the ability to easily provide minute-by-minute news of their activities doesn’t mean that it has become a public right to expect that level of service. However, the suggestion that “there are channels to go through for communicating with community liaisons in the event of a crime or emergency” seems to come from an earlier era. By continuing the suggestion in saying, “perhaps they should simply put more resources into making those channels more appealing” seems to deny the notion that social networks already exist. There may be fear that some will try to use these networks to start “flash mobs for senseless riots”, but technology is only single-purposed if the other half of the population decides not to use it at all.
One of the comments gave a very detailed example of how the @DCFireEMS Twitter feed was used by a local resident. He claims that “earlier this summer I smelled a ton of smoke wafting into the open window of my apartment in the middle of the night. I was going to call 911, but decided to check the Fire/EMS twitter feed first, and learned that there was a house fire a block away and it was under control, so I was able to just go to sleep and not bother the 911 staff.” This is exactly the type of interaction that “Government 2.0” proponents recommend by allowing citizens to interact with their government in a meaningful way precisely when it is needed.
The barrage of mostly negative comments flew across the social media this morning and finally a new story reported “The Party’s Still Going: No ‘Filter’ For FEMS Twitter Feed” saying that Pete Piringer, the PIO originally authoring tweets, (and a new assistant) will once again be sending tweets without any official “filter” to control it. This development was said to be a “big win for local tweeters”. I am more circumspect about the result however. Certainly a major winner was the @DCFireEMS account who gained over 100 new “followers” in the time it took me to write this post. I also think that the public has regained a useful service as they continue to benefit from the good work begun long ago in building communication with FEMS. It is the process that I think has lost something. How do we go from “social media is for parties” to “no filter required” in less than a day? Perhaps this is an example of exactly the type of communication that social media can be used to explain – in dialog form as opposed to a press release.