In the second of an exclusive two-part special focus, FIRE's Security Correspondent Dr Dave Sloggett looks at the implications for the Fire and Rescue Service with the development of the citizen journalist and the impact they can have on public confidence.

In Mumbai in 2008 as the terrorists went on the rampage a number of citizen journalists set out to go to the scenes and record what was happening. One lasting impression that ultimately was depicted across the world was the apparent paralysis of the Indian security forces, simply overawed by the scale of the attack which, remember, was only conducted by ten terrorists. It was not the size of the team that attacked that created the dislocation. It was the tactics they used.

One specific example of a citizen journalist at work saw an individual head quickly to the railway station and record images of people that had been shot and wounded, also recording people that had died. Those images were posted on the Internet in less than an hour from the outbreak of the attack. The scene at the railway station was one of unrestricted carnage. The terrorists shot anyone that moved. Like in Norway no pleas for mercy were granted.

The attacks in Mumbai and Norway were a pre-meditated killing spree. The pictures that then appeared on the Internet showed the raw nature of the aftermath of the attack. They were not subject to any form of media regulation. Here was terrorism in the raw, not the kind of censorship that formal media outlets have to produce to respect the dignity of those that have been killed or injured. The images that became available did so through a wide variety of outlets, including Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. Zuckerberg's transparent world was grimly filling in the information vacuum.

In London in July 2005 within minutes of the bus bombing at Tavistock Square citizen journalists were recording the immediate recovery of bodies by the emergency services. The main media channels were quick to note reporting from the bystanders that claimed to be seeing ten covered bodies at the scene. At the time the announcements emerging from the command teams responding to the incident were briefly, and understandably, out of kilter with what the citizen journalists were reporting on the ground.

When such events occur it can appear that the command team is out of touch with the reality on the ground. For an anxious public seeking reassurance this is a point of vulnerability for command teams. It is a problem that will not go away and may even provide yet more challenges, for example during the inevitable public enquiry that may follow a major incident - whatever form it takes.

The sight of commanders arriving at a chaotic scene and being briefed on the situation can be a period when it appears the emergency services are not responding to the unfolding events. With some elements of the media quick to chastise members of the media as being too conscious of health and safety rules any appearance of command inertia or indecision will be quickly recorded by the citizen journalist.

One by-product of the swift posting of such imagery by members of the public may be to inadvertently help the terrorists or those conducting acts of criminality. They can also use the images to adjust their tactics using their own command and control capability through mobile phones. This was a feature of the attacks in Mumbai. The terrorists adapted to the prevailing circumstances being informed by content they downloaded on mobile phones of people they had killed.

In what can often be a frenzied situation images and rumours can suddenly go viral as friends and family members quickly circulate material that they have received, shaping public opinion. In some cases it is not impossible for a situation to arise where the fearful public begin to lose confidence in the ability of the emergency services to contain the event. In a Chemical, Biological, Radiological or Nuclear (CBRN) event this would be particularly acute.

The rise of the citizen journalist therefore has, as is often the case with new technologies, two sides to it. On the one hand it can be a great help in developing intelligence and forensic insight in the aftermath of an event. On the other hand it can also place people in the emergency services in danger. It can also create uncertainty in the minds of the public about the extent to which the emergency services are coping with the event itself. In these globally connected times the jury is out on the balance of the positive and negative impacts.

Only time, and the aftermath of the next major event, will help us all fathom out ways of managing these events. One thing is sure. We have not bottomed out the intricate nature of how such events need to be managed. For the emergency services, planning for the Olympics, this is an urgent issue. 


Posted December 12th, 2011 at 0935 by Andrew. Comment by emailing: