Social media emerge as digital avenue for emergency response

Three out of four Web users expect help within the hour after a Facebook post or Tweet seeking assistance

Many people are now using Facebook postings and Twitter to report emergencies or call for help -- and they expect government response agencies to be paying attention, according to a new survey.

The American Red Cross’ “Social Media and Disasters and Emergencies” survey of 1,058 adults indicates that 18 percent would turn to digital social media if calls to 911 were unsuccessful.

Sixty nine percent of the adults surveyed said emergency response agencies should regularly monitor their Web sites and social media networks so they can respond promptly to requests for help posted there; 74 percent said they would expect help to arrive in an hour.

Fifty-two percent said they would send a text message to an agency on behalf of someone they knew who needed help.

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If the Web users knew someone who needed emergency help, 44 percent said they would ask other people in their social network to contact appropriate authorities; 35 percent would post a request for help directly on a response agency’s Facebook page and 28 percent would send a direct Twitter message to responders.

Red Cross officials said the survey illustrates that the public is using social media for emergencies and public agencies need to be ready to respond.

“The social web is creating a fundamental shift in disaster response — one that will ask emergency managers, government agencies and aid organizations to mix time-honored expertise with real-time input from the public,” Gail McGovern, American Red Cross president, said in a news release. “We need to work together to better respond to that shift.”


About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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Reader comments

Tue, Aug 17, 2010 DR

If you look at the article Jim Baker linked to, one of the major weaknesses is that by "tweeting" a call for help, "strangers from all over" called the Farmington police. Emergency responders do not need 50 people calling them, all saying the same thing. Many people calling at the same time to report the same tweet does nothing other than jam up the communications system and prevent other calls from coming in. Presumably this did not occur to the mountain biker. If a twitter message was getting through, a text message would have gotten through, and she could have just as easily text messaged several known individuals directly and asked them to call the police. It seems that inserting "social media" such as Facebook and Twitter into reporting a crime or emergency does little more than increase response times and disseminate the information way more widely than is needed to effect an efficient response. This is a complex topic, as different types of communication are appropriate for different situations. Social media may be best for reporting non-emergency issues such as general quality of life incidents, but to post a facebook message or a tween and expect an emergency response is very misguided.

Mon, Aug 16, 2010

@Jim Baker: A tweet (data) hits the same cell tower that a voice call does. Weak signal strength is unlikely a factor - more likely than not, it was the "store-and-forward" nature of SMS that got her message thru. I'm with the other poster, anyone who posts an emergency 911 message on their Facebook page and expects an immediate response has an inflated sense of self.

Mon, Aug 16, 2010 Jim Baker San Francisco CA

Social media tools like Twitter (and SMS) can often work where voice calls drop due to network signal strength. This happened just last month where a woman who had a bike accident on a rural trail managed to get a tweet through when she could not make a voice call. So social media does have its place in the scheme of emergency services. Look at what Twitter was used in Haiti for getting the news out.

Fri, Aug 13, 2010

What a crock, to put it politely. If 911 does not answer, what makes people think the cell network or their internet access will be up and running? Social media may have a place for post-disaster followups (like the 'find the relative' services), thereby taking some of the load off the regular emergency comms. But to throw a virtual bottle out in the ether, and expect flashing lights to respond in a timely fashion, is nonsense. Any sort of mass disaster, these social sites will be on their knees, if they are running at all. The old statement that 'any sufficently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic' comes to mind. The non-techie public, even if they know how to use the client devices, apparently think the system runs on magic.

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