In August 2017, when Hurricane Harvey touched down in Houston, thousands of people stranded by the destruction took to social media to call for help. Although 9-1-1 was operational, and authorities strongly advised those in need to contact emergency services directly, it didn’t stop the torrent of Twitter posts. It was the first time a disaster of that scale saw public safety actively leveraging social media to gather situational data and save more lives.
First responders took advantage of the data where they could, and thanks to the efforts of good samaritans, found a way to operationalize it on the fly to help save lives. However, applying this model at scale is extremely difficult. Twitter users had to religiously retweet requests for help to get noticed, and some even went so far as to log them into a constantly updated database to keep first responders up to speed. As the number of mass shootings and mass casualty events continues to rise worldwide, social media information is mission-critical data for first responders.
Connecting social media and public safety
Nowadays, many law enforcement agencies monitor social media for potential crimes and emergencies. Social media companies, at that, employ their own moderators to screen for illegal or illicit activity, and report it to authorities as needed.
When flagged content gets elevated to authorities, the process is relatively smooth. Facebook even built a Law Enforcement Portal for officials to submit subpoenas in a structured way. But what happens when public safety professionals need social media data in real time? Monitoring social media for keywords is one thing, but identifying actionable insights for emergencies is an entirely different one.
Making social media work for first responders
Social media is an extremely effective way to share information with large audiences quickly and effectively – that’s why tons of local and state agencies have started building their presence on social media. Not only can they share timely announcements and updates, especially in the event of an emergency, they can connect with their local communities in their off time.
9-1-1 centers and law enforcement agencies passively monitor social media for alerts and mentions, as well as to share relevant information when necessary, like we saw during Hurricane Harvey. They also use their own social media channels to correct false information, share live and updated information, and even issue instructions for citizens that might be nearby an emergency. Depending on the size of the organization, a telecommunicator might be assigned to actively monitor social media during large scale emergencies, like extreme weather or active shooter situations. Larger organizations like the NYPD employ full-time dedicated social media officers to monitor and reply to requests for help.
The disinformation factor
9-1-1 has done a lot of work to adapt to the social media communications paradigm – social media platforms have the unique opportunity to return the favor. Namely, in assisting 9-1-1 with verifying and monitoring alerts as they come in.
Many apps today are implementing safety features like panic buttons or emergency dialers to help send verified profile information along whenever their users experience emergencies. Not only does this help expedite response times in situations where every second counts, it helps cut down on the amount of false information that makes its way to public safety.
False, unverified, or inaccurate information that first responders receive from social media wastes time and resources – it also undermines those who genuinely seek help through social media. This is especially impactful in large-scale emergencies or disasters, where the wrong location can seriously endanger first responders, or keep them from getting where they need to go.
Disinformation is so disastrous in these situations, the Department of Homeland Security released guidelines for public safety officials to help minimize its effects. Social media has so much helpful information available, and is relied on by so many, that’s it’s impractical for first responders to abandon it all together. But the persistent difficulties they face in verifying information, especially as it trickles in, makes it difficult for public safety to rely on the way the general public does.
Building a reliable system for public safety
The current social media landscape is quasi-anonymous: users share only as much personal information as they want to. There’s no verification system for non-celebrity profiles (and even those could be gamed,) so anyone can still, more or less, make a profile for anyone.
This creates several complications for first responders. First and foremost, they have to do a lot of additional searching and referencing to verify a request made by someone on social media. If someone tweets at their local police department they need help, the department has to either direct message the individual, or search their names and locations, provided it’s available and correct. That’s not a solid foundation for a reliable system, and it’s prone to a lot of error.
Social media companies can assist 9-1-1 in a variety of ways, by investing features that send data directly to 9-1-1. Here’s a few examples of what that could look like:
Send panic alerts to local 9-1-1 center, sharing profile and location data
Two-way communications with first responders via direct message
Disaster response with specific, public safety endorsed hashtags where users have the option to request help through their post
User reports sent directly to 9-1-1 for specific emergencies, like violent threats to a person or property, or human trafficking
Through these advances, the next time someone is stranded on their rooftop after a flood, they’ll be able to simultaneously alert their families and friends they need help while sending critical information along to get them help faster. Not only will this benefit first responders and the users calling for help, it will help further differentiate social media companies from one another through a genuine commitment to public safety.