Society of Professional Journalists in Hawaii speaks out over radio transmission access

Society of Professional Journalists in Hawaii speaks out over radio transmission access

What will happen when Honolulu emergency radios go silent in newsrooms across Oahu?

Honolulu residents will get less information on a timely basis about disasters and other emergencies. Many leads to emergency calls that spell disaster will be gone because the news media will not know they are happening. Reporters won’t be dispatched immediately to help tell the public what is going on, and photographers won’t be there to capture emotions and other important details until later when there are no photos to take.

It is a quick decision to dispatch media coverage to an emergency scene. Even with databases, it is doubtful information will be readily available… and that’s even IF news media know something is going on.

The operational word here is “know.”

When information is broadcast on emergency radios, journalists can quickly tell if something newsworthy is going on. But if they are SILENT, reporters won’t even know to ask.

Take, for example, the winding down of the public’s access in recent weeks.

The following is from Hawaii News Now Assignments Manager Brenda Salgado:

“It’s been about 6 weeks since our radio scanner went down several notches, and the only thing being broadcasted at the very least is HPD dispatch calls. Even that is becoming few and far between and eventually will go away.

“What’s missing? HFD dispatch calls alerting us that there is a major event such as a planes crash, house or building fire, a major vehicle accident on our roads and/or freeway, hiker rescues in the mountains or a swimmer/ boater distress calls in the ocean. Those type of calls is what sets us in motion to alert the public of what’s going through our digital platforms and on-air alerts. More importantly, we are the immediate messengers to the public via cellphone alerts to stay away from those problem areas.

“Currently, what is being sent to us is emails and text alerts that are sometimes not very timely and gets lost in the plethora of daily emails and texts on one’s phone. The messages are sometimes so vague that sometime the location of the incident or the severity of the situation does not come through to get our attention.

“Case in point, recently there was a raging house fire June 7th on Pulapula Place in the Leeward District. No bells or whistles went off. By chance, I heard something on the D-8 (Leeward) patrol channel about closing a roadway, so I keyed in on that. Immediately after, I scoured Facebook to see if there were any postings of the fire. It took a few minutes to find a post by someone about the black smoke scene coming from a neighborhood. Immediately, I sent my photog out in that direction until I knew the specifics. Literally 10+ minutes go by before I get an answer from the HFD PIO that it was a major fire and that the back side of the house collapsed.

”This is ominous. I could see situations where brushfires threaten homes and the news media don’t even know about them to alert people potentially threatened or tell the public to stay away. AND THAT IS IF THEY KNOW ABOUT THE BRUSHFIRE IN THE FIRST PLACE. This is not a minor thing. Without these radios, it will be impossible for the news media to do their constitutional duty of telling the public what is going on.

“(The meida) are not criminals, they are not monitoring police radios to find out what areas are safe to do a burglary. I am afraid that some database of conversations with dispatchers will not be released on a timely basis, leading to more confusion and frustrations.”

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press said:

“For years, many local governments have encrypted sensitive police information, including SWAT team communications, but cities are now contemplating encrypting even routine communications.“Police argue that doing so prevents criminals from accessing these transmissions to evade law enforcement, as a robber and a shooter allegedly did in the Denver area. Police have also expressed increased concern about interference with their radios, pointing to, for instance, several instances in Chicago during the summer’s protests. But reporters argue that these transmissions help them inform the public of safety risks and serve as a source of timely alerts of newsworthy events.”

Some cities have responded by instituting an exception to blanket encryption for members of the news media, allowing them to access the communications on request or through standing decryption licenses.

For instance, the Eastern Riverside County Interoperable Communications Authority, an entity serving five Southern California cities, allowed access to local journalists from at least four news outlets on request from 2010 to 2019, when the entity revoked the exception.

Denver offers decryption licenses, but at a cost of $4,000 and subject to substantial and expensive insurance requirements.

We hope law enforcement will be able to give the media access, much like the way general communications were left open when SWAT channels were closed.

— STIRLING MORITA
Hawaii Chapter President, Society of Professional Journalists

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