COMMENTARY

Emergency crews get the message on social media

Response organizations across government put Web 2.0 tools to good use

One Friday evening in May, Atlanta City Councilman Kwanza Hall spotted a woman unconscious on a street corner. He reached for his cell phone to call for help, but he faced a problem: The battery on his phone was very low, and he didn’t want it to run out while waiting on hold calling 911.

Wait times for Atlanta’s 911 service had become a contentious issue earlier that month, after residents complained of being kept on hold while a house in the southwest section of the city burned down.

So Hall opted for another route: He sought help via Twitter.

“Need a paramedic on corner of John Wesley Dobbs and Jackson st. Woman on the ground unconscious. Pls ReTweet,” he tweeted. Dozens of his followers picked up the message, passing it along to their followers, and several people called 911. Paramedics quickly arrived, and the woman, who had suffered a seizure, was taken to a hospital for care.

The incident is often cited by the Red Cross and other emergency services organizations as an example of what social media can do in times of crisis. It’s not the only example, of course, and there are bound to be a lot more. Emergency teams at all levels of government are making use of social media channels in an increasingly big way.

As Senior Technology Editor Rutrell Yasin reports in this issue, social media and Web 2.0 technologies are becoming regular — in some cases, even essential — tools for agencies from the municipal to federal levels.

For example, San Francisco sends public information via Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, using the latter for public alerts. The U.S. Geological Survey has put the messaging service into the name of its Twitter Earthquake Detector (TED), which searches Twitter’s API for keywords relating to earthquakes as a way of getting early word on geological disturbances. One reason USGS is using Twitter: After a 2008 earthquake in California, tweets about the quake spread more quickly than USGS alerts.

Other examples abound, from Manor, Texas, (population 5,800) to the Virginia Department of Emergency Management and the Defense Department’s Southern Command.

No one is pretending that social media holds all the answers to emergency management. Cities such as San Francisco use Twitter or Facebook as complements to traditional channels. USGS officials emphasize that TED doesn’t supply scientific information, but they say those tweets fill a gap between the moment an earthquake hits and the dissemination of official alerts.

Social media can’t replace established methods of emergency communications, at least not yet. But it’s an extra tool that organizations can use to reach a segment of the population they might not have otherwise reached and do it more quickly than other forms of communication allow. And sometimes, it can even save lives.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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