The 911 system we have in place works: Breaking Social Barriers

Posted: February 8, 2011 in GOV20, SMEM

This morning I became aware via a tweet from Social Media in Emergency Management advocate Kim Stephens of an ongoing effort by Southold Voice, inc, a New York property owners organization, that is attempting to convince their town leaders to engage in social media for disaster preparedness and response.  The organization has several posts on their website pleading with town officials to accept the concept that Social Media could be beneficial toward comprehensive emergency management efforts. While it is refreshing to see a community organization take such an approach to engaging elected and appointed officials, the individuals behind this effort have also reached out to emergency management practitioners throughout the country using Twitter to help build their arsenal of material to utilize when educating their local officials.

In addition to the approach that this organization is using to engage their town, I was struck most by a quote that was contained within an article written about these efforts. In the article, the town’s Police Captain is quoted:

“The 911 system we have in place works,” Flatley said. Flatley said he was not sure the additional work involved in using social media in emergency weather situations was worth it or not. Flately noted he has increased his efforts to notify news media of road closings, down trees and accidents during severe storms this winter.

The reason that this quote struck me is that it clearly shows that many emergency managers and public safety officials  still do not understand the value that social media can bring to the table to facilitate communication with their community or even what that communication may look like.  Based solely on the above captioned quote, the Town of Southold’s Police Department views inbound communication as a job for their Public Safety Answering Point via 911 and outbound communication as the job of the news media.  There are two key myths in this belief. As I have previously written about, utilizing multiple mediums to provide information to the masses is critical.  Every study that has been released over the last several years shows that people spend more time engaged in digital media, either utilizing a computer or smart phone, than they do monitoring traditional broadcast media.  With that understanding in place, we must challenge the myth that the traditional broadcast industry is capable of effectively reaching a majority of out population.  Similarly, while most urban jurisdictions are utilizing a combination of public outreach campaigns and non-emergency call centers to decrease the load on their Public Safety Answering Points and 911 trunks, this quote shows us that there are still some areas that feel that 911 could or should be utilized for citizen feedback.

A few simple lessons for jurisdictions faced with similar challenges:

  • People spend more time online than they do monitoring traditional news sources.
  • Facebook and other Social Media outlets are where people spend most of their time online.
  • It is important to know the true reach of your public warning program. If you are faxing press releases to the news media and posting a banner to your website, you aren’t reaching most of your citizens.
  • Using appropriate and free tools a jurisdiction can provide updates to its website and multiple social media networks simultaneously with no additional workload required by staff.
  • It is better to push information via social media rather than ignore it all together because you fear you do not have the resources to effectively monitor all social streams. One way engagement is better than no engagement.
  • It is better to provide minimal resources to allow staff such as public safety dispatchers and/or public information officers to monitor and engage on select social networks such as Facebook and Twitter to answer questions from the public rather than to ever advocate that 911 be utilized for this purpose. When faced with a true crisis, your resources will be much better applied.
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