In a post on its Facebook page today, New York’s Owego Fire Department is encouraging people to write the editor of the Press & Sun Bulletin to pull down an article by reporter David Robinson posted last night on the paper’s website yesterday that includes fire department radio traffic from a house fire that took the life of Capt. Matthew J. Porcari. It also encourages people to cancel their subscription to the local Gannett paper and to encourage advertisers to pull their ads from the publication. The message concludes with these words, “Please do what you can to help get this heartless and ‘shock value’ article off of the web forever!!!”.
As is made mention in the Facebook posting, the article comes two days before a delayed private burial for Capt. Porcari.
The paper reports it received the recording through “Freedom of Information Law”. Here’s an excerpt from the article:
From a struggle to supply enough water to aid firefighters to a harrowing rescue attempt that left multiple people injured, the recordings, obtained under Freedom of Information Law, detail the series of events that unfolded that frigid night.
Fire and law enforcement officials later determined a lighting apparatus in a small shed near the one-story home caused the fire, which they ruled accidental.
Here is an account of the emergency response based on dispatch records, along with a Tioga County Fire Investigation Team report and other details provided by county officials in news releases and during interviews.
As of this writing there are 45 comments with the article and 17 more on the paper’s Facebook page. That I can see, all of them are extremely negative about the decision to publish the article and the recording. Most of the comments are much more pointed than the original post from the Owego Fire Department. Most, like the Owego Fire Department’s Facebook message, express concern about the impact on Captain Porcari’s family and fellow firefighters. It should also be noted that at least 342 people recommended the article.
Before I go any further, let me state clearly a few things about STATter911.com. My goal with this site is to put in front of those who read STATter911.com information that is already in the public domain (almost always from the Internet and social media) about important issues, significant events and daily emergencies related to fire and EMS. Since leaving the television news business three-years-ago, I am no longer a reporter who originates the material, whether it be documents, information from anonymous sources, or audio recordings of radio traffic. But if it is on the web and I think there is something to learn from it, or could make for an interesting discussion, I often will post it. In fact, that is the main reason for providing the information about this controversy. I think there is a lot to learn from it and some important issues fire departments need to think about ahead of time.
As you know, this site and almost every other fire and EMS website you are familiar with has posted emergency radio traffic from significant fires, including ones where there have been line-of-duty-deaths. Many times these recordings are posted within a few hours of the event. While again, we aren’t the originators of the radio traffic recordings, the digital age has made it very easy for the recordings to be almost instantly published on the web, by virtually anyone. In addition, the radio traffic for thousands of fire departments can be heard live on the Internet thanks to sites like Broadcastify.com. Those recordings are then immediately available for members of the radio service to turn around and post on YouTube and elsewhere. I am not a member, but people who are, often communicate with me and other fire service site webmasters, notifying us that these recordings have been posted and are available.
My personal philosophy is that more information is generally better than less information. That said, on a number of occasions, I have delayed in posting radio traffic recordings that were available based on my own personal standard. Depending on the situation, the reasons have included the identity of an injured or deceased firefighter had not yet been made public, the recording included the final words of a firefighter, or the airing of the recording could have impacted an ongoing event. An example of the last case is, that while it had been made public, I held off on posting the initial radio traffic of Georgia firefighters making the notification they had been taken hostage until that situation was resolved.
In the New York fire there apparently was no such recording made available on the web. Instead, the newspaper went through long established channels on obtaining public records to get the recording. That I can see, no one is claiming the paper did anything illegal or sneaky in getting the recordings. As a strong believer in the First Amendment, I fully support the paper’s right to do so and at the same time I fully support the community’s right to give them hell for doing it.
And “community” may be an important part of this controversy. Every community is different. I’ve been posting radio traffic from line-of-duty-deaths and incidents where firefighters have been injured on this site for almost six-years. Some of the radio transmissions were much more graphic than what is on the New York recording (think of Kyle Wilson’s last words from Prince William County, VA). Despite the scores, if not hundreds, of radio traffic recordings I’ve posted, I’ve never received anything near the outpouring of emotion and criticism that is directed toward the Press and Sun Bulletin. Yes, there are occasionally one or two people who think the recordings should be taken down immediately. But it’s a fact of life, that almost anything posted, offends someone. This includes routine house fire videos that offend homeowners. If I were to take down everything that someone finds offensive, I might as well shut down the whole site.
I can tell by the statistics from YouTube and my own site that these recordings of radio traffic are extremely popular among firefighters. But nothing comes without a cost. There is no doubt that, the instant release of the radio traffic puts increased pressure and possible scrutiny on the department involved. Even with a delay of many months, the recordings will have an impact that fire departments need to prepare for.
Here are some questions for you to consider, based on the controversy in New York:
- Is it realistic for a fire department to think something that is considered a public record should not be released because of concerns about the personal feelings of the survivors of an incident?
- Should a news organization only publish recordings and/or information after an official investigation is completed?
- Should a news organization be allowed to conduct its own investigation of an incident?
- Is a fire department line-of-duty-death fair game for a reporter to probe?
- Do we really want the press to make decisions based on potential emotional impact or to just put on the record the facts they have discovered regardless of who might be hurt?
- Whose standard of what’s offensive should rule the day, the newspaper’s, the fire department’s or the community’s?
- Do you think any fire department radio traffic recordings should be allowed to be published on the Internet? If only certain ones, which ones? Who decides?
- Should the fire department be the leader of a boycott of news organizations it finds offensive?
- When you do publicly protest should you be worried you bring more attention to what you want everyone to ignore?
I look forward to the discussion.
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