When it comes to public safety, forward-thinking government agencies are beginning to look at social media as a support tool for improved situational awareness.
The very nature of social media’s open communication and crowdsourced information provides a powerful tool for public safety agencies. Take, for instance, the Twitter user who unknowingly tweeted in real-time about the Osama Bin Laden raid, or the Florida deputy who used Facebook to negotiate a standoff, or the kidnapper who found time to update his Facebook friends.
A 911 center supervisor recently spoke about the role social media played during a mall shooting. While police units established a perimeter around the mall and assessed the situation, they tried to sift through conflicting reports on the shooter. A 911 dispatcher jumped on Twitter and Flickr, and was actually able to obtain photos of the shooter, posted by witnesses inside the mall. Imagine the value that information provided to the incident commander and tactical operators on the scene.
Is Emergency Response Via Social Media Feasible?
To understand the spectrum of social media applicability and the challenges it poses to public safety, it’s helpful to think how the public safety context is different than traditional social media usage. First, public safety is event or incident-driven, whether for prevention, reaction or investigation. Second, public safety is really a unique form of customer service in which the expectation of service is very high, everyone expects to receive the same level of service, regardless of his frequency of use or willingness to pay for it, and the cost of failure can be astronomical.
Think of it this way: You may feel comfortable posting to a brand’s Facebook Page and not receiving a response for a few hours or maybe even a day or two. However, if your local emergency center planned to monitor calls for help via Twitter and Facebook, it would face major concerns. Therein lies the challenge for public safety — how do you effectively use a powerful set of tools for gleaning real-time information, without incurring huge cost and liability, not to mention, set unrealistic expectations for the public?
Where is Social Media Emergency Response Applicable?
When public safety agencies take to social media, they must remember two factors.
- The direction of the communication (i.e. the agency pushes outbound information to citizens, the agency draws on inbound information from citizens, or mutual, two-way communication).
- The timing of the communication with respect to an incident.
For example, a local police department sends an emergency notification through Twitter, alerting citizens to poor road conditions due to inclement weather. In this case, emergency notifications through social media are outbound. Conversely, decision support relies on inbound input from citizens. Public safety agencies monitor information streams, selectively engage users if the situation dictates, and then develop a course of action.
Emergency 911 centers (or their international equivalents) are typically designed as the communication hub — or customer service center, if you will — for two-way citizen emergency communications. Therefore, they’re also a natural fit for social media engagement.
However, with limited exceptions, these centers do not typically welcome technology beyond caller ID and some basic location information. Efforts like “Next Generation 9-1-1” plan to equip centers so that they may receive a wide array of media-rich content. In the meantime, individuals post photos and videos of unfolding events to social media platforms. Many of these individuals will never even contact 911 directly, assuming that other witnesses have already done (or will do) so.
Would Public Safety Face Any Challenges?
It is becoming increasingly important for emergency responders and other officials to rapidly access and make sense of relevant social media to provide a better picture of the incident and surrounding area (i.e. situational awareness). However, emergency responders are unavailable to mine these social media sites, and often, the 911 center will be too overburdened with incoming calls to do so either.
Several larger agencies have established dedicated units (often within police departments) to provide real-time intelligence. Real-time crime centers operate in several major U.S. cities — notably, New York City and Houston, TX. These centers have access to powerful data aggregation and decision support tools. The New York City Police Department has created a social media unit within its intelligence division.
Traditionally, the data used by these crime centers was more static in nature and limited to the various databases maintained by the city, such as the police department’s records management system, the municipal court information system, permits, etc. This is not the case with social media. Officials can glean valuable intelligence from social media posts across dozens of online platforms. Additionally, this data can emerge from many a dynamic scenario. Consider the foreign tourist who posts a photo of a suspicious package in Times Square, or the concertgoer who shares a video of a crowd fleeing a shooter.
In addition to valuable intelligence-rich posts, people share thousands of well-wishes or anecdotes that, while thoughtful, provide no useful information to public safety officials and obscure the posts that could enhance emergency responders’ situational awareness (see the most recent shootings at Virginia Tech). The amount and velocity of social media traffic and “background noise” is so extensive that it is nearly impossible for intelligence analysts or emergency managers (let alone a busy 91-1 center) to consistently provide real-time information to first responders.
The Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s (DARPA) Social Media in Strategic Communication project seeks to apply analytics and advanced data solutions to social media in the same way it has improved video analytics and other operational intelligence.
As social media continues to exponentially grow, so will the sheer volume and type of content. Public safety will be forced to develop solutions that better automate today’s mostly manual response efforts. Hopefully, information sharing between the public and public safety agencies will improve and, ultimately, lead to safer communities.
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