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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

City Hopes Volunteers Won’t Talk to the Media

Posted by Nathan Gilles on Wed, Mar 28, 2012 at 3:59 PM

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In February, we published a story detailing problems with the city’s volunteer-run Neighborhood Emergency Teams (NET). Among the laundry list of complaints volunteers told us, the big one was that the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management (PBEM), which is supposed to help coordinate the program, hasn’t given NET volunteers (or NETs) the support they need. Now it looks like they can add one more complaint to their list: PBEM wants to keep NETs from talking directly to the media.

In a major disaster, NETs, who have been trained for emergencies by the city, will be expected to aid first responders. This afternoon, PBEM released a draft (pdf) of its first-ever NET code of conduct, which hopes to prescribe exactly how members will act in emergencies. But the draft also tries to dictate how NETs should represent the program in general. Among a lot of common sense stuff—like respect others and don’t show up drunk—there’s a clause that asks NETs contact PBEM officials before “making public statements” about the program. The section reads:

Confer with and obtain the consent of the NET Program Coordinator prior to making public statements about the NET program or NET members or engaging in lobbying efforts on behalf of the NET program. Direct anyone who is looking for official statements concerning the NET program to PBEM at 503-823-4375.

The draft, which as of its release this afternoon is open to public comment, also makes clear that failing to abide by this rule could mean getting booted from NET. As you can imagine some volunteers aren’t happy with the new gag rule and want to see it kept out of the final code.

"I think there is a big difference between being able to express your opinion and frustration,” says NET volunteer Mark Ginsberg, “and communications during call outs where there is a public information officer and a communications protocol. Even this statement would not be allowed under the new proposed code!"

What is perhaps most interesting about the gag rule, says Ginsberg, is how PBEM hopes to enforce it in a disaster. “I hope PBEM won't keep their former NETs from helping in a major emergency because they might have spoken to the media.”

As to why PBEM felt it needed to institute the new rule, director Carmen Merlo sent the Mercury the following response via email:

“Think of the NET program as a brand. We need to control the use of that brand. We can't do that if we have 300 mouthpieces speaking on our behalf. There can only be one official source for NET information and that source has to be PBEM.”

But NETs have been very outspoken in the past, and whether they will feel comfortable with PBEM being the sole mouthpiece for their brand is another matter. After reviewing the current draft, NETs might keep the new gag rule out of the final code.

PBEM spokesman Randy Neves says he expects the official code of conduct will come out sometime next month.

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