Social Media Moves into the Mainstream of Public Safety

January 13, 2011

Todd Piett

Facebook and Amber Alert today announced a partnership whereby Facebook becomes another method of disemminating Amber Alerts. Ostensibly, the same processes currently involved in verifying and issuing a “standard” Amber Alert are in place, and Facebook just becomes another communication channel like the current emergency broadcast system. Simply “Like” the states on the Amber Alert facebook page for which you want to get notices and, voila, you get the alert in your newsfeed and are able to share it with friend.

Public Safety has been increasingly dipping their collective toes in the social networking space for several years now. Many agencies utilize Facebook to keep citizens informed, utilize Twitter to broadcast important information, and even automatically display dispatch information on Twitter; however, this is the first really national foray into official use of social media. Facebook was founded in early 2004, just a year after the Amber Alert network was established. Estimates show that there are nearly 500 million “active” Facebook users, with nearly 42% of the U.S. population having a Facebook account and generating nearly 135 million unique visitors each month. Like it or not, Facebook is part of mainstream communications.

As a communication mechanism, Facebook provides some really interesting capabilities beyond the geo-centric nature of today’s Amber Alerts. While it is impractical to broadcast an Amber Alert across several states, or even across the country, Facebook’s viral reach means that interested parties can distribute the message extremely quickly and broadly. According to the Nielson Group, the average Facebook user spends nearly 6 hours per month on the site and Facebook itself says the average user has 120 friends. The end result is that messages spider out quickly across geographies and demographics.

So, is this a foreshadowing of broader “official use” of social media or something unique to the Amber Alert Network? According to a recent Red Cross press release, public safety is already behind the times in the eyes of most citizens:

“The online survey asked 1,058 adults about their use of social media sites in emergency situations. It found that if they needed help and couldn’t reach 9-1-1, one in five would try to contact responders through a digital means such as e-mail, websites or social media. If web users knew of someone else who needed help, 44 percent would ask other people in their social network to contact authorities, 35 percent would post a request for help directly on a response agency’s Facebook page and 28 percent would send a direct Twitter message to responders.

Web users also have clear expectations about how first responders should be answering their requests. The survey showed that 69 percent said that emergency responders should be monitoring social media sites in order to quickly send help—and nearly half believe a response agency is probably already responding to any urgent request they might see.”

It’s not a matter of whether we embrace social media, it’s a matter of how to do it effectively quickly.

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