Social Media and 911

Yesterday we attended a webinar on the use of social media in public safety emergencies.  Wow–we learned a lot.  I hadn’t realized that people were using social media in place of 911 in some instances (which was disturbing) and as an asset in emergency management situations. 

I know that some of you out there are wondering why a person couldn’t send a text message or a photo to a dispatch center to report an incident.  The answer is simple:  the highly specialized and optimized fail safe equipment is not yet ready to receive it.  For the past couple of year the National Emergency Number Association is working with some other groups to establish the standards and protocols for handling text and photos.  We are proud to say that we have equipment we believe will be ready to accept whenever the standards are developed.  Now before you say, GOVERNMENT BUREAUCRATS ARE TOO SLOW.  You should know that the group isn’t entirely bureaucrats and lives depend on getting this right.  So careful thought does have to be given to how this will work so that you can depend on it all the time, everywhere.

In the meantime, I cannot emphasize too much:  CALL 911 FROM YOUR MOBILE DEVICE OR LANDLINE IF YOU NEED POLICE, FIRE OR EMS

The voice call to 911 IS a highly optimized system and not only can we receive your call, we know where we can find you and voice is still the fastest way to share information about what is happening whenever possible.  We are not able to do the same with a Tweet.  It is very common to receive calls on a 911 line where no one speaks and our operators must listen to determine whether it is an emergency like a break-in with criminals in the home, or if it is a person having a heart attack who cannot speak–we can still find them.  A retweeted tweet doesn’ t have the same reliability or a Facebook post, doesn’t give us updating information that answers important questions for the dispatchers to relay to responding officers. 

Secondly, we saw a demonstration of how social media users of Twitter and Facebook as well as similar social media can be mapped and photos, comments tracked to aid in emergency management.  Ushahidi is a fascinating use of such technology where various types of social media are mapped to give emergency managers information about what is happening.  We saw a live map of Japan that was covered in mulitcolored dots indicating where social media users had given information or uploaded photos of how things were wherever they were located. 

We also considered how we could improve our public outreach using Facebook, Twitter and others in a way that in cost-effective in time use and yet gets people into a conversation with that answers their questions and provides information in a format that they find useful.

So for those of you out there who want to interact with us over social media, we’re working on it.

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I'm the Chief of Police for the Auburn Hills Police Department.