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"In an Emergency, Twitter 9-1-1"

Author: Randall D. Larson

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2011-07-19
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Originally Published in our June 2009 issue.

The ongoing spate of social networking websites and services – from the businesslike Plaxo and Linked-In, where professionals can interact to develop new business contacts and resources, to the more personable and informal MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter, in which people can link to friends (and make new friends), posting and updating personal profiles and blogs (weblogs) for the purpose of social interaction, self-promotion, or just to keep friends and associates updated as to their status.

While 9-1-1 Centers gradually become more accustomed to using the Internet (governed by local protocol and SOPs to protect against misuse) as a valuable tool in its arsenal of information management resources, the use of these social networking services has until very recently been considered inappropriate.

A couple of years ago in the south San Francisco Bay Area, person or persons unknown broke into an underground telephone vault and chopped a bunch of fiber optic telephone cables, taking out, among other things, 9-1-1 and all telephone and cellular service in parts of three counties for more than a day.  While emergency responders beefed up visible patrols, enhanced by HAM radio volunteers stationed at pivotal community locations, agencies informed communities where they could go to report emergencies until systems were restored.  Among them: AT&T kept more than 2400 people appraised of the situation and what to do via its “Twitter feed” news scroll.  Other agencies posted updates on their web sites, as well as more traditional media outlets.

Other agencies have taken notice.  In April, 2009, the Ventura County (CA) Sheriff’s Office, for example, launched a twitter page.  Comm Manager Danita Crombach says that “we intend to use Twitter for situations where there may be phone interruptions due to natural or manmade disasters.  Secondly, we are using Twitter as another forum for positive press releases.”  Many other agencies are following the trend.

The use of twitter as a method for communication between the 9-1-1 center and the public goes beyond emergency messaging as well.  The Boston Police Department launched a Twitter page as a way to provide updates about incidents and soon found many more uses.  “In addition to pushing information on Twitter, the police department is able to receive – privately – tips and other information through the site,” said the city’s public safety Information Officer Donald Denning in a story posted online in Urgent Communications.  “In fact, the police department monitors Twitter for emergency pleas for help,” wrote the article’s author Donny Jackson, “because Boston – like most cities – does not have a 9-1-1 system that is capable of accepting text messages and photos.”

These sites and services are cost-free, fairly easy to manipulate, immensely popular, and offer a modern way for public safety agencies to provide a positive and interactive networking with its community.

Welcome to the future!



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