Social Media and Emergency Communications

July 7, 2011

Todd Piett

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about social media and emergency communications.  I wrote last month about the surprising feedback and interest in one of the panel sessions I was on at the National Emergency Number Association conference.  I’ve continued to get questions and refined my thinking about the 6 ways social media can be used by public safety, so here goes some more detail on the list I presented in last month’s post:

  •  Interacting with citizens on your site – What most folks think of as citizen outreach and public relations and is where most agencies focus.  This is a great venue to get the kind of customer feedback we need from citizens to improve our service.  Common uses include posting safety tips, 9-1-1 tips, and notifications of community events.
  • Outbound communication – Integrating social media into your emergency communications strategy.  As a company, we have a lot of experience in this area and have been integrating Facebook and Twitter into our emergency notification solution for a long time.  How is this different from bullet #1 above?  It really depends on your implementation.  If you are promoting social media as an emergency communications vehicle you have decisions to make that aren’t as relevant if you are using social media as just a public relations and training tool. For example, are you going to monitor 24×7 for responses and calls for help?  Are you going to allow responses at all?  What are the protocols for addressing responses?  One big lesson learned here… social media is a great mode of communication but shouldn’t be your only means of getting the word out.  There are no SLAs for message delivery and no one to complain to if the word doesn’t get out in a timely manner.
  •  Decision Support – Utilizing social media as a resource during an emergency, effectively searching for information that can help you respond quickly and efficiently.  This is not about “your site” and what you put out, but all the other content producers that are out there.  I was recently given an amazing example of the value of social media in emergency response.  During a mall shooting, a quick thinking telecommunicator jumped onto Flckr and Twitter and was able to get critical information about the shooter, including a photo… before the police had even sorted out what was going on at the scene.  Real-time information can mean the difference between life and death.  So, how do you start to implement processes in the 9-1-1 center to take advantage of this info and what tools are available?  More to come on that in the future.
  • Predictive Analysis – Using social media to identify future risks.  The easiest example is early warning of the house squatting party planned for Friday night.  Luckily, one of our clients stumbled across word of a house party that was planned for a vacant house in their town.  An officer was posted at the driveway and over 300 “party goers” were turned away before the house was destroyed and a major police incident occurred.  Turns out the party was all coordinated through Twitter.  We’re working on some cool stuff to help enforcement proactively identify these sorts of events.
  • Forensic Analysis – Post incident use of social media.  Read an interesting article on an FBI lab in Utah focused on social media here.  There is also an increasing number of cases working their way through the justice system about the privacy (or lack thereof) of social media posts and how the legality of how law enforcement obtains and uses those posts.  If you are a glutton for punishment and like to read about legal cases, wikipedia has a good post on US. vs Warshak from 2010 and the courts interpretation of the Stored Communications Act which could have huge implications on Social Media and law enforcement.
  • Calls for Help – As social media grows, so too does the expectation that you can contact “9-1-1” through those media forms.  The reality today is that emergency communications do not monitor Twitter and Facebook… but work is underway to enable that very thing.  It won’t be long before you can Tweet “Help me” and get a response from local public safety agencies.

If you made it this far, thanks for reading!  Promise I’ll move off of social media on the next post.

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