- The Washington Times - Monday, December 30, 2013

The D.C. fire department unveiled a new highly restrictive social media policy Monday that bans department employees from taking photos or video of fire or accident scenes while on the job and from transmitting such images to the media or other organizations.

The policy could also put the kibosh on the firefighter union’s Twitter account, which provides details about the department’s responses to the scenes of violent crimes, fires and accidents.

The department’s policy, released late Monday, is part of a wider effort to create consistent social media policies across the District’s public safety agencies.

“It was thought that they should really be uniform across the board,” said Keith St. Clair, spokesman for Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Paul A. Quander Jr.

Among the restrictions put in place by the new fire department order, employees may not release “any photographs, still images, video or audio recording of official Department activities” — a restriction that could further conceal information about department activity as the agency considers encrypting its radios so the public can no longer listen in.

The order states that employees are also banned from posting “images of any other Department employee or official Department activities on their personal social media pages,” or transmitting pictures, depictions or a description of any crime, fire, or accident as well as any patients or victims.

Agency heads worked with the attorney general’s office and Mr. Quander’s office to draft the guidelines, offering input on rules that may or may not apply to their agencies, Mr. St. Clair said.

The police department, for example, allows members to take photos while on duty as long as these are for official law enforcement purposes.

Among the agencies adopting new guidelines, the fire department has had perhaps the most storied social media history.

In 2011, the fire department suspended its popular Twitter account in order to get a tighter handle on information disseminated about emergency operations. The account often provided minute-to-minute updates on emergency operations. Another agency spokesman, Lon Walls, later commented that “It’s OK for parties and that type of stuff, but I’m not big on Twitter for issues of public safety.”

Mr. Walls was later suspended after characterizing a firefighter protest against Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe as “racist” on his personal Twitter account.

Many D.C. fire companies keep their own engine company websites, which prominently feature photos of firefighters at work. But photos taken by an employee at a fire scene stirred up controversy this summer when a photo of an ambulance that caught fire was distributed on Twitter by the firefighters union.

Union President Edward Smith said he hopes the new policy doesn’t mean the end of the union’s Twitter account, which began posting details about the department’s responses after the agency’s Twitter account went dark. Both accounts now regularly post about department activity.

“I don’t know how it affects the union’s Twitter account, which I think has been appropriate,” Mr. Smith said, adding he plans to check with the union’s legal team and the American Civil Liberties Union over the legality of the policy. “I think that’s been a great tool. I think the public deserves to know.”

Mr. St. Clair said the new policy isn’t meant to stifle speech, rather to ensure information disseminated on social media about the department is accurate.

“I don’t think that means there will be less accurate information,” Mr. St. Clair said. “It means that the information that comes out we know to be accurate.”

• Andrea Noble can be reached at anoble@washingtontimes.com.

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