Written by Bob Smith
This is the first of two articles dealing with comm centers and the media. In this article, we discuss the role of the front-line telecommunicator.
Spend time in any comm center, and you'll hear telecommunicators fielding calls from the media: "Hi, this is Joe with Channel 9. Anything going on?"
The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the right of a free press, and many state and U.S. Supreme Court decisions affirm the "public's right to know." With the advent of push technology (e.g., e-mail news alerts, text messaging, online streaming video), the demand for immediate information is greater than ever before. The public has come to expect information on a developing situation immediately and for that information to be updated accurately and continuously throughout the duration of an incident. This expectation forces the media to constantly strive to be the first to provide information. And telecommunicators have access to information about criminal activity, law enforcement actions, building plans, medical histories, driving records and other operational information that may be of interest to the general public, including criminals. However, telecommunicators are expected to keep much of this information confidential. Each state has specific laws that govern the release of public-safety-related information to the media.
A common policy for handling media inquiries is to refer the caller to the lead agency handling the incident in question. This method may work for independent agencies, those not under the direct control of another public safety agency (i.e., fire department or police department), but it may not work for those who actually work in the agency responsible for incident command. With this in mind, many agencies have designated public information officers (PIOs), individuals who are trained in media relations. Because PIOs cannot be available 24/7, 365 days a year, agencies should also have a policy in place to handle routine calls from the media.
Absent designation of a specific PIO by the lead agency, telecommunicators should be given certain information they can relay to the media that will benefit all involved. Such information includes:
- Whether or not the lead agency will designate a PIO to handle a specific incident;
- Whether the agency will issue a statement, provide a press release or hold a press conference;
- How often information will be updated;
- Whether a press area has been designated on scene; and
- Who the media contact on scene is.
Certain information should never be released to individuals outside the public safety arena. State or local laws may prohibit the removal of records from the PSAP or the disclosure of their contents to those outside the agency. Information obtained through the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database is governed by federal regulations that impose strict confidentiality requirements on those certified to use the system. Emergency medical calls demand a high level of confidentiality as well, and individuals providing medical information to the telecommunicator have a right to expect their information will be kept confidential, as appropriate.
A common rule of thumb to use in releasing information to the media about specific incidents, especially incidents that are still in progress, is to provide only information that has already been broadcast to the responders on an unsecured radio frequency. Still, not all of what is said over a radio frequency during the heat of battle is appropriate for public dissemination, and some information may have been inadvertently broadcast that would otherwise warrant a higher level of confidentiality. Some guidelines:
- Avoid releasing names, particularly those of juveniles, victims or suspects. Many states have specific laws regarding the release of names, and telecommunicators should become familiar with the applicable laws.
- Explain yourself as thoroughly as possible. Don't assume that because a caller works for a local media outlet and knows you by name or has covered the local public safety arena for years that they understand all facets of the industry. Explanations up front, as time allows, go a long way toward ensuring the correct message is released to the public and prevents miscommunications and the need for retractions or corrections later.
- Avoid jargon or technical terms. Spell out acronyms and abbreviations, such as BOLO or ATL.
- Speak for the organization. Use the agency's name as much as possible. This prevents inadvertent labeling of you personally as the authority on the situation.
The bottom line: Comm centers must have policies, procedures and guidelines that address media inquiries. Established guidelines serve to minimize the PSAP's and the telecommunicator's liability exposure and help agencies create a professional and mutually beneficial working relationship with the media.