Social Media For Public Safety

By Samuel Greengard Print this article Print

Government increasingly relies on social media tools to manage disasters.

See also How to Use Social Media in a Disaster, Companies Go Social Amid Threats.

Government agencies are turning to social media technology to manage disasters and improve public safety.

A growing number of agencies are tapping into Facebook and Twitter to monitor events and provide near real-time notifications. And some are now taking social media a step further by communicating internally or sharing information and comments across offices or agencies.

A September Congressional Research Service report, Social Media and Disasters: Current Uses, Future Options, and Policy Considerations, noted that social media already plays an important role in disasters, but the use of the technology for emergency management is growing.

In Fort Worth and Tarrant County in Texas, for instance, a joint emergency operations center has switched on social media tools that improve communication across dozens of agencies and departments throughout the state. Police, firefighters, healthcare providers and others use push-to-talk radio, cellular telephony, and text messaging (including text documents and file sharing) to interact with an IP telephony infrastructure located in a response center. This allows teams to coordinate immediate responses, regardless of the underlying communications technology.

The software, RadioConnect for SameTime from IBM and UnifiedEdge, helps officials and crews find expertise and track down information and answers far more efficiently. In February 2011, more than 40 agencies and organizations used the system to manage security-related tasks for the week leading up to Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington. Among the participants: the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the American Red Cross and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The system allowed more than 290 key officials to stay in constant touch with one another using over 30 Radio-over-IP channels. “We can easily gather information, find the persons or agencies most appropriate to help and respond, and quickly direct them to exactly where they are needed,” notes Melissa Patterson, emergency management coordinator for the Tarrant County Office of Emergency Management.

The CSR report noted social media isn’t risk free. Sites such as Facebook and Twitter can spread inaccurate information, and privacy concerns exist. There’s the “potential for the collection, retention, and data mining of personal information by the federal government with respect to its use of social media for disaster recovery purposes,” the authors noted.

However, the advantages are substantial. “Beyond informational purposes, the use of social media not only allows people to interact and communicate in ways that are not possible through other media, but in some cases it has allowed response organizations and victims to interact and communicate with each other when traditional media were unavailable, the report concludes.

This article was originally published on 2011-10-05
Samuel Greengard is a freelance writer for Baseline.
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