During times of crisis, it is easy to understand why emergency management personnel want to control the message. They may have specific, urgent information to get out. They may want to minimize panic.
But is shutting out the press and the public the best way to do that? That is exactly what happened during Hurricane Irma.
The press was admitted into a small room in the Florida Emergency Operations Center with a glass wall. The room has speakers in the ceiling, but they were disabled.
Reporters could see the command post, but they couldn’t hear anything said in the briefings with state and county officials.
To justify keeping the sound off, the governor’s staff cited an exemption in Florida’s Sunshine Law about military movements.
Even assuming that turning off access to the sound was not illegal, it didn’t serve the public interest if we believe that open government is better government. The result was a restricted flow of information to reporters and, thus, the public.
For example, it took twelve hours before the governor announced that driving on the road shoulder was permitted for evacuees on a portion of the I-75.
Reports about flooding on I-10 and I-95 were only listed on the FL5111.com website, which was not accessible to those without electricity or internet.
This is the type of information reporters would have learned during those meetings had the sound been on.
Fortunately, the Florida Division of Emergency Management recently reversed the decision to prevent journalists from accessing the sound. This decision came after pushed for open access. In times of crisis, the news media—imperfect thought they may be—are crucial to fast distribution of public safety information.
For the first time in years, reporters were permitted to hear audio in an October meeting about Tropical Storm Nate – reopening the flow of information to the public.
Open government is the best government.