The District of Columbia wants to encrypt the radio communications of its fire department in an effort to better protect first responders from those who might want to do them harm.

D.C. Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Paul Quander Jr., however, was very clear that the goal is not to encrypt all communications, just those that include tactical and strategic information exchanged between public safety officials once they arrive on a scene. Dispatch communications will remain open to the public.

“What we are going to do [here is] based on public safety and protection of staff and others,” Quander told Government Technology. “When the units get to the scene – the fire ground or wherever they are going and they need to conduct their business – then they will switch to an encrypted channel and that way they can communicate without others knowing exactly what is happening.”

Currently, media and others can pick up information about incidents in progress by tuning into the publicly accessible radio frequency the department uses, getting a “blow-by-blow” description of events as they unfold, including where first responders are assembling and how many personnel are on site. In addition to those details, incident-related data protected by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) could also potentially be exposed.

“There is a lot of information that goes on and there are a lot of people with nefarious designs to cause harm,” Quander said. As an example, he noted the December 2012 incident in Webster, N.Y., where a gunman set a fire to lure firefighters to the blaze and then fired on them, killing two and injuring two more.

Like this story? If so, subscribe to Government Technology's daily newsletter.

“If you look at terrorism across the world, it is a common ploy,” Quander said. “We have to be proactive and we have to think ahead to make sure that we can respond appropriately, that we can address the situation and keep our personnel safe.”

He noted that encrypting tactical communications will be one of the recommendations from an examination of the response to the Sept. 16, 2013 mass shooting at the headquarters of the Naval Sea Systems Command inside of the Washington Navy Yard.

Dispatch channels, however, will remain open, he said. “The dispatch channels -- the channels that will say ‘Engine Co. 10 report to 14th and Pennsylvania because we have a pedestrian struck’ or ‘report to 14th Street Bridge because we have a potential jumper’ -- that will not be encrypted.”

Uniform Social Media Policy

The changes to the radio encryption policy come on the heels of an effort to unite all of D.C.’s public safety agencies under one social media policy, which now requires verification when any information or photographs are released via social media sites like Twitter.

Previously, photographs and other information about fire department activities were distributed through various social media, including through websites maintained by private companies. Going forward, all department communications, including photographs, must be approved before they are disseminated to the public.

The change is based on Metropolitan Police Department policies that now stretch across all public safety agencies, to ensure everyone is operating under the same standards.

“I asked the Office of the Attorney General to give us some assistance, to take a look at MPD’s policy and to make sure that every agency that comes into possession of confidential information … that we had procedures and policies in place that would make sure that whenever anyone is speaking from the government or speaking while on duty or purporting to represent the government, that the information is accurate, that it's verified, that it's precise,” he said.

And in some ways, having a policy like this on the books enhances transparency in that information that is released, once vetted through official channels, is accurate.

“We are a public safety agency,” he said. “We are not reporters. We are in a particular location to do a job and we come into sensitive information. Sometimes when we are in a rush to broadcast information, it compromises other activities. … Part of what we are trying to do is to make sure that we don’t do anything inadvertently that makes the job of all the public safety officials harder. There is a place for the dissemination of information and there is a means to do that. What we have sought to do is to make very clear what the policies are of the dissemination of information, when it can be done and when it cannot be done.”

Personnel are cautioned against posting statements, photographs, video or audio that could be deemed inappropriate, based on a number of criteria, and the policy also regulates what firefighters can post about their job outside of their official work capacity.

According to a statement on the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department website, "Posting confidential, private or any information obtained directly or indirectly as a result of employment with the Department is prohibited ..." and while employees can mention their jobs in personal posts, they "must include a disclaimer stating the opinions expressed are personal and do not reflect the views of the Department nor the District of Columbia government.”