Crime Scenes: Fire union pushes politics with Twitter

Sends message blasts criticizing City Hall even as fires burn

March 12, 2011|By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

If you're one of the more than 450 people who follow Baltimore's firefighter union on Twitter, here are some recent messages you may have seen:

•Natty Boh will be on tap at Camden Yards this season.

•Nothing says I LOVE YOU like a brand new smoke detector or carbon monoxide detector for Valentine's Day.

•Baltimore City is CRITICALLY LOW on available ambulances. Response times may be affected.

And every morning starts with a message like this: "Units closed to save money today are Engine 6 (Oldtown 1100 Hillen St), Engine 46 (5500 Reisterstown Rd)."

And if that doesn't scare you, here's one that might, posted after several ambulances were taken out of service one day this month: "Feel free to take the FREE CHARM CITY CIRCULATOR to the hospital since the Mayor and City Council believe that deserves more funding than YOUR Fire Department."

The Baltimore Firefighters Local 734 has embraced social media as a political tool — updating its members and the public with breaking news of fires, even as buildings burn, and a steady stream of warnings that the city's policies are leaving residents vulnerable and unsafe.

It is all part of the continuing battle for quick information — even if it's quick, inaccurate information — in the age of instant messages.

And it's very much political. The union is fighting the city in court over cuts to pensions, and its members just rejected a contract that calls for pay cuts. The labor group is trying to win public sympathy by telling residents that the battle is not about salaries but about staying alive.

Bob Sledgeski, president of Local 734, makes no apologies. "It's budget time in Baltimore," he said.

Law enforcement and fire agencies from across the country — entities that prefer to move cautiously and methodically, carefully releasing information only when it's deemed accurate and thoroughly vetted — are struggling to figure out the Internet and its broad, swift reach.

Many agencies, fire and police, have turned to Twitter and Facebook into nothing more than a dry repository of recycled press releases. Baltimore police have taken the next step, with live Twitter updates of shootings and major crimes.

Baltimore Firefighters Local 734 is using Twitter not just to ramp up political rhetoric, but also to update followers on breaking emergencies — information the labor group feels is not forthcoming from fire commanders.

But sometimes the rush to deliver raw news amid the chaos of a breaking fire or other event — ahead of official announcements— leads to premature or wrong information going out.

Earlier this month, the union put reported on Twitter that a crash on Route 295 was "now reported as a fatal accident." Police and fire officials told a Baltimore Sun reporter that the victim had been taken to a hospital in serious condition. The man survived the crash.

In January, the fire union tweeted that a Baltimore County firefighter had died fighting a blaze. The message came before the firefighter's relatives had been notified and two hours before the department's official spokesperson acknowledged the death publicly.

That same month, the fire union named a Baltimore police officer who died in a shooting before relatives could be notified and hours ahead of confirmation from the Police Department. Those disclosures forced union officials to rethink their policy on blasting sensitive information so quickly.

But the fast-paced world of the Internet is not going to slow down. And demands for instant information will soon force even nervous public safety officials to more quickly release information in real-time.

The rotating closures of fire companies to save money is nothing new — the city first started the practice in 1996 — and it has survived through three mayors and three fire chiefs. The fire union has warned of playing "Russian roulette" with the lives of residents for the past 15 years.

For Chief Kevin Cartwright, the city Fire Department's spokesman, it's old rhetoric. "Really, there's nothing new," he said, while responding to union Twitter postings while at the scene of a fire. He noted that the closures continue "without any adverse impacts." He says the union is undermining the good work of its own members and hurting the image of the department.

Trying to determine whether someone died because a fire engine came from three blocks away or 10 blocks away can hardly ever be proved. The fire union cites countless instances when a fire broke out and the closest truck or engine company was shuttered.

In one instance a few years ago, a man died in a fire just blocks from a closed fire house and it took an engine four minutes instead of two minutes to arrive at the scene. But even that case didn't give the union a clear argument — a 911 caller had botched the address, contributing to the delay.

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