In the first 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.

Mark Zuckerberg the founder of Facebook has said of his on-line service that 'by giving the people the power to share, we're making the world more transparent'. That is a noble vision. But it is one that has consequences, especially when seen through the lens of the Fire and Rescue Service and their colleagues in the rest of the emergency services.

The terrorist attacks in London in 2005 and in Mumbai in 2008 and the recent tragic events in Norway provide some interesting insights as to the challenges posed by the inexorable rise of the citizen journalist. In such situations it is not just the high visibility jackets that draw the work of the emergency services to the attention of the public. It is their every move and decision.

The advent of the mobile phone has placed the emergency services at even higher levels of visibility and public scrutiny each time they respond to an event. This is a particularly challenging situation in the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack.

Terrorists often adopt tactics that involve trying to compress time. This is where several devices are activated within a short period of time. In Madrid the 14 explosive devices that were planted on the trains were supposed to detonate over a two minute window at the height of rush hour. In London, on the Underground, the three devices activated by the suicide bombers detonated in a one minute window around 0850 to 0851 in the morning.

These tactics of near-simultaneous detonations have been used across the Middle East, with on-going attacks in Iraq showing the enduring nature of the threat. The detonation of so many devices in a short period of time aims to create confusion, dislocate the command hierarchy and to hamper the ability of the emergency services to conduct their work.

In the first few moments after an attack that sense of dislocation is at its peak. Commanders at all levels in the chain, from Bronze to Gold levels, have yet to gain control of the incident and establish any form of cordon in the area. The first priority has to be to get develop an awareness of the outcome of the attack and the potential for follow-on incidents to occur. The fear of secondary devices can also slow the response as people try and secure an area and allow the first responders into help casualties. The emergency services are in the process of being rapidly deployed to the scenes that have been targeted. They are not alone.

The media is also on its way, as are the inevitable phone calls to the 'talking heads' that are often wheeled out at this critical juncture to offer their opinions as to what has happened and to provide analysis. In these situations stereotypes quickly come to the fore, as the talking heads seek to justify their presence in the studio. What they are doing is trying to fill an information vacuum that quickly develops with 'educated guesses and informed opinions' until the incident commanders can get onto the media and provide their first assessment. The length of that information vacuum can be really important. It can shape public opinion very quickly.

One example of this occurred in Norway in immediate reaction the explosions close to the government buildings in Oslo on the 22nd July 2011. The talking heads that entered the studios that day were quick to speculate that the attack as an act of Muslim extremism. The evidence available at the time certainly provided some confirmation of that as a possibility. But it was hardly conclusive.

The attack in Oslo took place against a backdrop of a series of raids and arrests by Norwegian counter-terrorism units of a number of people that have been accused of being involved in planning acts of terrorism. This created a hook for the speculators and allowed them to develop a line of argument that the attacks may have been linked to Muslim extremism. For just over two hours that hypothesis was the general conclusion. That was how long it took Anders Behring Breivik to drive to the island of Utoeya, an island to the north of Oslo, catch a ferry and start his killing spree. An act that was to catapult him to the top of the informal list of spree killers maintained on the Internet.

This window of uncertainty is the point of maximum impact of a relatively new phenomenon that is called the citizen journalist. These are individuals who immediately use their mobile phones to record what is happening around them, often having little regard for their own safety. In the last few years that have been numerous occasions where they have provided an information flow that filled the initial news vacuum that occurs after an act of terrorism or other very public facing events.

During the riots in England in the summer of 2011 any television pictures of the riots was accompanied by the images of bystanders holding up their mobile phones recording what was happening. Many of the images taken by the citizen journalists on that occasion have helped the police arrest people involved in the rioting and looting that took place. That is an example of a way in which the citizen journalist can be helpful. They provide the high-resolution imagery that the Close Circuit Television (CCTV) cameras are simply unable to provide reliably. Arrests and prosecutions arose from the actions of many of those that simply recorded what they saw happening in front of them as society in some limited areas moved very close to the edge of anarchy.

But there is another side to the coverage. As the media responds, sending its camera crews to an event, they are desperate to gain hold of any immediate footage of what is happening on the ground in the first few seconds after the attack has taken place. Voracious news organisations will consume anything they can, provided it will not create offense to public decency. Herein lays the problem.


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Posted December 6th, 2011 at 1340 by Andrew. Comment by emailing: