Social Media and Public Safety

Written by KOVA Corp

Could the public ever contact 911 for help via Twitter or Facebook?

Though public safety answering points are far from implementing that service now, it’s actually something that’s being mulled over by key figures in the industry.

Social media is already being tapped for a variety of public safety uses but there are major challenges that PSAPs would be confronted with if they enabled the public to use social media to ask for help with emergencies.

Present: Social Media in Public Emergencies

Right now emergency responders use social media to disseminate or gather information. In the event of an emergency, public safety agencies can notify the public via posts on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media outlets. Because these posts have the potential to reach large targeted audiences quickly social media can be truly valuable in a dangerous situation. From warnings about road conditions in bad weather to instructions and updates during an unfolding public safety-related event, social media announcements can actually save lives.

Present: Social Media Use by Police and FBI

The police and FBI use social media to gather information about crimes. They comb Facebook and other networking sites looking for people who are bragging about a crime they just committed – or maybe even posting pictures or videos of themselves in the act. Social media can also help them tap into the collective knowledge of entire communities. Oftentimes people post pictures of large-scale emergencies as they’re happening and emergency responders can utilize that intelligence in handling the situation. And it’s not uncommon for police to post a picture or video on Facebook to ask the public whether anyone recognizes the criminal.

Present: Using Social Media to Request Help

There are situations where calling to request is impossible as it puts the individual in even more danger, such as during a kidnapping or domestic violence. Instead of attempting to seek help through messaging a police station’s Facebook, text a friend and have them call for help. Post a status on Facebook (and tag individuals so they will be alerted). Still, the best option is to call 911, turn the volume down, and leave the line open so dispatchers can hear what is going on.

Future: Social Media and 911 Calls

Before 911 contact centers could consider responding to pleas for help via social media, there are several obstacles that would have to be dealt with.

First of all, there’s the issue of response time. When a person calls 911, they expect an immediate answer and help within minutes. But with social media, there can be a time lag between posting a request and getting a response. Meanwhile, the person in trouble won’t know whether their post has been seen yet. Just think of the usual response times for companies answering a customer question on their Facebook page 24 to 48 hours or more! A 911 Facebook page would have to give instantaneous responses.

That leads us to the next problem: staffing. In order to effectively monitor social media for requests for emergency help, a dedicated workforce would need to be put in place to scan all social media feeds around the clock and handle emergencies as they arise. This workforce could not be comprised of people already busy answering the phones because response time would be compromised for those calling in. Budgets would have to be adjusted accordingly, which is never conducive to making a change.

Finally, important information that can be gathered from a phone call such as location, is not as easy to obtain from a social media post. If someone posts a request for help without mentioning their location and is then unable to continue the conversation due to the nature of the emergency it would be just about impossible to locate them.

The use of social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter has already proven to be very effective in helping public safety agencies disseminate and gather information. As far as giving 911-style help via social media, who knows? With advances being made in technology every day, it may not be too long before there’s an app for that, too.

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