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Social Media in a 9-1-1 World

Author: Lisa Dodson, ENP, 9-1-1 Coordinator, Harris County Sheriff's Office

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2012-04-30
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Social media has taken the world by storm and has quickly become a form of communications that could not have been imagined when 9-1-1 was first implemented.  With over 1.4 billion users between Facebook and Twitter alone, this new medium provides a great deal of potential for public safety to interact directly with the citizens in their communities. 

So why haven’t most 9-1-1 PSAPs embraced social media yet? It may partially be blamed on yet to be implemented NG911 technology such as the use of text-to-911 and the sending of photos and videos to a PSAP along with a voice call.  While these technologies are widely available to the average consumer, they are foreign to PSAP operations that have relied solely on voice communications for over 30 years to process emergency calls.  The rest of the blame is the simple fear of the unknown.  PSAP operation managers struggle to determine how these new technologies, including social media, fit into their agency’s operations. 

 

Most agencies have some component of community policing, fire prevention, communications, or interactive community involvement in their strategic plans.  These are excellent areas that can be enhanced by social media because they primarily require dissemination of information from the agency to the public.

 

Looking beyond the processing of emergency requests, social media can easily be implemented and utilized for various functions to support a PSAP.  If you have Internet connectivity, then your agency can have a social media site.  But before you fire up that login, you must put some thought into how to use it effectively.  A good first step is to review your agency’s strategic plan.  Think creatively and determine where social media can help you achieve the goals outlined in your plan.  Most agencies have some component of community policing, fire prevention, communications, or interactive community involvement in their strategic plans.  These are excellent areas that can be enhanced by social media because they primarily require dissemination of information from the agency to the public. 

In order to create interest in the activities of your agency, the community wants to know information that is useful to them in their daily lives.   Utilizing social media can turn your agency into its own media outlet.  While traditional print and television media can be expensive and require waiting until the next broadcast or edition for their stories to be released, social media allows for your agency’s public information officer to post real-time information to your community.  This can include agency press releases on major crimes or fire incidents, mug shots of wanted persons, status on investigations, employee service awards, new services implemented by the agency or changes in command staff.  Social media can ensure that your message is communicated in the context that you want it to be communicated, giving the agency greater control over information released to the public.  Agencies such as the Los Angeles Fire Department (@LAFD) and Seattle Fire Department (@SeattleFire) use Twitter to give up to date information on current fire scenes which may help the public be aware of why they hear fire trucks in their neighborhoods or see them running in emergency mode down their streets.

In our recent economy, funding for 9-1-1 public education has been a victim of public sector budget cuts.  Social media has been able to fill the void between public education efforts and the lack of funding.  Agencies using Twitter, who allows users to send text-based posts of up to 140 characters called “tweets”, are posting short, concise tips on the proper use of 9-1-1, such as the Raleigh-Wake Emergency Communications Center (@RW911_PR).  These “tweets” are seen by subscribers to an agency’s Twitter page and can then “re-tweet” or re-post them to their own Twitter page, thus expanding the reach of your public education efforts to thousands of Twitter users in your community, without any additional effort.  Facebook’s ability to post messages greater than 140 characters, as well as photos and videos, have allowed agencies to expand their education efforts even further.  After attending a safety fair or a school festival, public educators can post pictures of the event along with 9-1-1 tips to reach community members that did not attend that event, such as the Ogle County 9-1-1 Emergency Telephone System Board.  Spare the expense of costly video productions and create your own presentations using desktop software on topics such as wireless 9-1-1 or the importance of knowing one’s location and publish them on your agency’s social media site. 

 

At the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, our emergency dispatch center uses Facebook for keeping our community up to date on 9-1-1 technology, correct use of 9-1-1, as well as announcing awards received by our personnel.

 

The month of April is designated as National 9-1-1 Education Month and this year we saw several agencies use Facebook at its fullest for distributing tips on 9-1-1.  At the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, our emergency dispatch center uses Facebook for keeping our community up to date on 9-1-1 technology, correct use of 9-1-1, as well as announcing awards received by our personnel.  For public education month, we set a goal of posting at least one (1) 9-1-1 tip each day.  Utilizing Facebook’s analytical tools, we were able to monitor how effective our daily messages were, and how many individuals were able to see our posts.   A post about the ability of VoIP to dial 9-1-1 during a power outage allowed us to reach over 1,900 people on a single day, increasing our reach over 300% over the previous month. It has really proven that if you venture into the social media world, that you need to stay committed and keep your site fresh.  Each day, with each new post, we saw our interaction with the community grow.  If you could deliver your messages like that on a single day, it would by far exceed your reach at a safety fair, thus augmenting your public education programs. 

In some situations, it is not just about what information the public wants to know, but more about what they need to know.  According to a survey by the American Red Cross, Americans are relying more and more on mobile and Internet technologies, including social media, to learn information about disasters.  The role of social media should be considered when reviewing your agency’s contingency plans.  Providing information such as evacuation routes, shelter locations and road closures could greatly alleviate call volume to a PSAP during a disaster, allowing dispatchers to focus purely on disaster responses.  In 2011, Texas suffered the worst drought since 1925, creating extremely dry and volatile conditions.  This created several large wildfires throughout the state, with by far the largest affecting Bastrop County in central Texas.  Fire and emergency management agencies utilized social media to keep residents informed on fire conditions, status of fire suppression efforts and neighborhoods that were evacuated and closed off due to active blazes.  Citizens were able to view real-time information on whether or not their homes were still intact, find out when they could return home, as well as how they could help emergency responders who came from all over the country to fight the fires.  All of this could be accomplished without having to make a phone call. 

 

Before social media can be fully embraced for the use of emergency requests, it will need to be integrated into NG911 technology in some fashion in order to ensure that this type of medium for contacting 9-1-1 is afforded the same quality of service that a traditional voice call receives.

 

While all of these ideas sound grand, social media is not without its challenges.  Once your agency takes the plunge into the social media world, you are out there for all to see.  Your social media presence may bring an expectation of service that you are not yet ready to provide.  There have been examples of individuals contacting emergency services through social media, such as a Minnesota boy posting on his Facebook page for a friend to call 9-1-1 when his mother was being assaulted and a Washington man who suffers from Muscular Dystrophy that used Facebook to have his friends call the fire department when a fire broke out in his house.  While these are successful incidents, they are not reflective of how 9-1-1 works today.  9-1-1 dispatchers are used to receiving requests that have been routed to them based upon a caller’s location and includes verifiable contact information.  Anyone can create a profile name on a social media site and start posting.  9-1-1 dispatchers may find it difficult to trace an individual that may need assistance if a legitimate identity is not used.  This may cause a delay in receiving help.  In the case of the Washington fire, friends in Indiana and Texas made calls to their local 9-1-1 PSAP to report the fire.  This created a challenge for those PSAPs in trying to quickly determine the correct agency to notify.  Before social media can be fully embraced for the use of emergency requests, it will need to be integrated into NG911 technology in some fashion in order to ensure that this type of medium for contacting 9-1-1 is afforded the same quality of service that a traditional voice call receives.  If your agency is not prepared to have emergency requests posted to your social media site, it is prudent that you consult your agency’s legal resources and post a disclaimer on your site so that it clearly states its purpose. 

Embracing social media can be daunting, but used effectively, it can become a useful tool in your agency’s ability to communicate with your community.  There are several social media technologies out there besides Facebook and Twitter.  Start by researching all your options, including the goals that you want to accomplish.  The International Association of Chiefs of Police has an excellent repository (www.iacpsocialmedia.org) on social media that is a good starting point for agencies looking for answers.  You will find ideas for its use, sample policies, case law as well as links to agencies already using social media.  So what are you waiting for?   Take the plunge into the social world!

Lisa Dodson is the 9-1-1 Coordinator for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office in Houston, Texas.  In addition to managing 9-1-1 operations, she manages the Facebook page for the Emergency Dispatch Center which provides 9-1-1 public education outreach and keeps Harris County citizens informed on safety issues in their area.  For mopre information, see the Harris County 9-1-1 web site at http://www.911.org/

Facebook members can follow Harris County 9-1-1 by finding and liking: "Harris-County-9-1-1-Emergency-Dispatch"

See these related stories:

Information Sharing in the Era of Social Media by Chris Russo, ELERTS
http://www.9-1-1magazine.com/ELERTS-Russo-Information-Sharing

Password Please: The Place of Social Media in Hiring Decisions, by Barry Furey
http://www.9-1-1magazine.com/Furey-Password-Please

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