#Emergency: What is social media’s future role in emergency communications?

It has been over 70 years since the first emergency telephone line was launched in London and 999 is the number we all learn to call from a young age to reach Police, Fire and Ambulance. But in a world where a telephone call is just one of many different ways we communicate with each other could things be about to change?

Many local forces are already using social media (Twitter and Facebook in particular) in some rather creative ways, such as West Midlands Police that recently hosted a 24-hour tweetathon to expose time-wasting 999 calls, an approach I first heard used by Greater Manchester Police back in 2010. They have recognized that these sites can be powerful communication channels through which they can share important information with the local community. But, emergency services are also beginning to seriously look at how people use their smartphones and other mobile devices, and whether they can be used to notify command and control centers of emergency situations.

People of my generation might be a little #cynical at the prospect of using Twitter if our house is burning down. However, when the London Fire Brigade announced late last year that it would explore setting up the world’s first 999 emergency twitter feed, Deputy Commissioner Rita Dexter stated:

When it was first set up in 1935, people said that dialing999 to report emergencies would never work. Today BT handles over 30 million emergency calls each year. It’s time to look at new ways for people to report emergencies quickly and efficiently, and social media could provide the answer in the future.

The US was behind the UK in the introduction of an emergency telephone number (911 was introduced in 1968) but has been quick to recognize that voice calls are no longer the only way to raise the alert in an emergency. The Federal Communications Commission made anannouncement in December 2012 regarding plans for Text-to-911. The service would ultimately enable US citizens to send an SMS in situations where a voice call could endanger the caller, or would be impossible for people with disabilities.

Perhaps Twitter isn’t the ideal medium through which to report a life or death situation, but its potential power in the two-way sharing of information with the emergency services could have hugely valuable implications. Take, for example, the awful helicopter crash that occurred in the Vauxhall area of London in January. There were eye witness accounts, video footage and photos taken by people on their commute to work. This information could prove vital in the post incident investigation, and a well-publicized Twitter address with associated hashtag (perhaps @999, #londonheli in this instance) would provide a fast (possibly real-time) and efficient way for the public to share their information with emergency services.

The latest incident management systems that are used by many command and control centers to reconstruct incidents after the fact can already accommodate this influx of information. Incident files can be appended with information from traditional sources such as telephone calls and CCTV footage, along with time stamped photos and videos from social media sources (e.g. twitter posts) to recreate a complete timeline of events. Investigators can quickly piece together and reconstruct the incident to uncover what happened, where, when and why.

I am keen to see just how far the London Fire Brigade’s use of social media will go, but if Rita Dexter’s words are any hint of what’s to come, social media will have a place in emergency communications – “With over a billion people now using Facebook and half a billion using Twitter, it’s quite clear that social media is here to stay,” she says.

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