Live police scanner feeds that widely publicize tactical positions during active shooter police operations represent a significant challenge to officials who manage the social media aspect of an emergency situation. Information spills onto social networks, where anyone, including potentially the perpetrators, can access the information. The incident in Colorado Springs, U.S.A. on the afternoon of Nov 27th 2015 is one such example. The source of the fire that sparked on social media emanated from the Police’s own radios, picked up by the scanners and rebroadcast across the world.
As a situational awareness tool, scanners can be invaluable for a Virtual Operations Support Team [#VOST ] activated to support an official response to an incident. Many are operating remotely and scanners are a good source to gain insight to a developing situation on the ground. Trained VOST ‘ies know that raw scanner traffic is unconfirmed data, may ultimately prove to be wrong and ought to be treated with an abundance of caution. The data is weighed against other information, official and crowdsourced.
The real downside to the scanner feeds is when the tactical information is broadcast in real time to tens of thousands of people, who then transcribe what they hear into sound bites, out of context, to share with followers across multiple social networks such as Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and Instagram. Discussion threads develop on the original posts and the content is shared again and again, with comments that give traction to unverified information and misinformation, including rumors or hoaxes. Or if correct, gives out the positions, equipment, and thinking of those we are asking to put themselves in harm’s way to save our lives and catch the bad guys.
For the Colorado incident, potentially some +/-70,000 listeners on @Broadcastify at: http://www.broadcastify.com/listen/feed/54/web could share with tens of thousands more on their social networks and many did. Sound bites were posted all over Twitter and Reddit in almost real time.
Without wishing to single anyone out, Mitchell Ward @MayorMitchWard is one example. What was he thinking when he tweeted out “Are any officers in bldg north of suspect?” in near real time as it came across the police scanner?
— Mayor Mitch Ward (@mayorMitchWard) November 27, 2015
He wasn’t the only one. Journalists were also sharing tactical information, including a Fox News Radio station that directly pointed listeners to the police scanner raw feed, increasing the reach and exposure exponentially.
We cannot have all that and be safe.
Citizens don’t want to give police a cloak of invisibility, or not to be accountable for their actions, but they do want them to protect themselves. It’s a measure of public concern for police safety in an active shooter incident that more of the +/-70,000 listeners did not share the information, but far too many did. The sampling below is only the last 100 tweets AFTER the suspect had surrendered, but if you click this link, you can get a sense of how fast this was spreading across the world. Twitter Reach Report Results for broadcastify _ TweetReach
It’s critical to public safety that we do a better job of educating citizens, government officials, journalists and the media about not sparking social media fires that give out tactical information in real or near real time. We also need our police to help us to help them. We respectfully ask the police to switch to more secure communications when the situation becomes sensitive.
This is an Op Ed piece. Personal opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the opinions of all VOSG members.
Selected examples in this post cite the time stamp of the author, EST, not the time in the AO, which is -2 hours MST.
Correction: This article has been updated. An earlier version implied incorrectly that the police use 2M above or below the 144.0 – 148.0 MHz reserved for Amateur Radio. The author does not know what the police used in the Colorado Springs Active Shooter incident, or why, only that radio communications were not secure, which is the point of the article.