Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Social Media as a 9-1-1 Option? Social media in Haiti.

This blog post from Coast Guard Petty Officer Walter Shinn about how social media has been and is being used in Haiti to help save lives reminded me of a very important issue emerging in emergency management. What happens when people start relying on social media such as Facebook, Twitter, etc. to call for help? In desperate situations such as Haiti, as the linked post shows, it may be the only way, and for humanitarian reasons it is being encouraged and that is the right thing to do.

Shinn reports: To get better information, a Distress Short Message System Short code number, 4636, was set up through the Department of State to allow those in Haiti to send in their distress messages via a text message. This number was then sent to every cell phone on the Haitian network.

A story I blogged about before from Australia is another example. Two young girls fell into an abandoned well and became trapped. Fortunately, they had a cell phone. Unfortunately, they forgot that the numbers on the phone were for making phone calls, and instead of calling 000 (Aussies 9-1-1) they sent a message to their Facebook page that they were trapped. You see, to these 10 and 12 year old girls, that device they carried with them was a text message machine for them to connect to friends. They forgot or never learned that most of the rest of it think about it as a mobile phone, particularly convenient in a life or death situation. Fortunately one of their friends saw the Facebook message and called authorities and the girls were rescued.

So, why is this an issue? Because what happens when people, particularly young people, start seeing social media and the text message machines in their pockets and purses as the way to ask for help? Do police, fire and 9-1-1 centers have an obligation to answer? Should first responders do what they are doing in Haiti and start promoting short codes so citizens can text for help? Should agencies start setting up social media monitoring operations similar to what the Coast Guard auxiliarist did to make sure all social media calls for help are answered?

The Coast Guard themselves asked this question in a blog post last summer, troubled by the potential implications on response agencies when people start shifting to these methods of communication.

This is a very challenging issue for emergency management professionals. But one thing is certain, sticking our head in the sand about it won't make it go away. I'm guessing this is going to become increasingly urgent and there is no simple answer. Twitter is remarkably unreliable, but what happens when people start counting on it to ask for urgent help? And how will the fire department answer the question posed by a reporter when they ask: "If you were monitoring Twitter and you saw this call for help, why didn't you respond? You do monitor Twitter don't you?"

The stories coming out of Haiti right now, good news stories about the role of social media, will only add to the urgency in dealing with this issue.

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