Would You Know How To Tweet An Emergency?

Note: This post is a request for people to think and speak about what matters in the use of social media, and how we can collectively design and shape these media for…what matters, especially in emergency services. Please take some time and come up with ideas. If you can think of ways to make Twitter better, get them circulated. Saving a life can start with an idea. Silence can be an atrocity. (To see my 911 proposal click here).

When I ask “Would you know how to tweet an emergency?” I have two kinds of audience members in mind: people who use Twitter regularly and people who don’t.


Last week, after meeting a bunch a very smart risk managers who just haven’t kept up with developments in social media, it occurred to me:¬†what if one of them needed to send a public message about a developing emergency? Say a terrorist attack, a fire, a missing child, an auto accident. Maybe they could use their cell to dispatch emergency services. But wouldn’t alerting followers on Twitter help to increase awareness – and do so instantly?

Another angle: what if there was an amber alert issued via Twitter or Facebook. How would someone who wasn’t using these services be able to help? Granted, it’s up to chance that she’d see the tweets or retweets or Likes, but every extra eyeball could help.

Yet another angle: for someone who still uses only a cell phone, how would they operate a victim’s iPhone or Android device if it were the only connection to the outside world? “Here, use my iPhone – call 911 and send a tweet about what’s happening.” “Twat? Twit? Huh? What’s that, how do I do that?” Time. Lost time. Time is life.

You see what I mean?

Risk management is about what you do with what you know. It’s also about what you don’t do with what you don’t know.


But here’s more: what about the rest of us, those of us who use these tools as simply part of our daily communication? Would we know how to tweet an emergency?

On one hand, it’s a pretty simple question to answer. “ALERT: 2 gunman at ABC Bakery, Springfield PA!! Patch police, stay away from area.”

But what happens after? How does communication ensue after that? Police departments have been using Twitter – and more will continue (see Lauri Stevens’ work – @lawscomm for more). If the tweeter didn’t know the Twitter account for Springfield Police, how would SP know just via Twitter, so that it could maintain contact with her?

Also: do we have a collective standard on how to handle emergencies on Twitter?

Here’s where I think a couple of things need to be worked out: 1) How the user-base naturally uses Twitter in these situations and 2) Twitter’s involvement.

So far, Twitter’s user-base hasn’t come up with a way to handle emergencies. It was the user-base, not Twitter, that made hashtags a conventional feature of Twitter. But when it comes to the psychology and sociology of an emergency, there hasn’t been much talk about what to do.


This is where Twitter may be of help – by offering tools to help emergency services.

A thought: Twitter could enable a tag system which, if used, alerts local services to the tweet automatically (based on geolocation data).

Now, such a set-up could be abused (I could see all the dummies dumping tons of hashtags onto the retweets), but it’s in Twitter’s power to exert some intelligent power of the tags it assigns.

I propose this: Twitter establish #911 as a universally understood hashtag (for U.S.), one under its control – not only meaning suspending abusers (or just blocking their use of the tag) but also linking the hashtag to the user’s geolocation and creating a network of emergency services through which to patch the data. Twitter’s API is perfect for this re-purposing.

Applications for emergency services could be created which address noise/pranks, etc.

For users who don’t have geolocation enabled, a global emergency account could message the user directing him to turn it on (even by just replying “Yes”).

As of today, #911 doesn’t appear to be used – but it makes sense, and it certainly would be easy for Twitter to promote the feature right on its website (even in spite of a lawsuit a while ago).

I’m sure there are other mechanisms Twitter could develop. But there are other considerations too – what to do in a terrorist situation where the violators are monitoring tweets.

I’m just throwing these out there. There’s no perfect solution, but things can be done. I hope people pick up what I’m getting at and continue with their ideas.

As I said: on one hand, this is an easy matter to address, and yet there are subtle issues that perhaps we need to hash-out publicly.

Just as there was a time during the telephone’s early evolution when there were no standard emergency protocols and systems, so too it is with Twitter currently.

So, again, the question: Would you know how to tweet an emergency?

@PhilBaumann @HealthIsSocial – Newsletter




0 Replies to “Would You Know How To Tweet An Emergency?”

  1. Phil,

    Just a couple of humble thoughts.

    I like your idea about amber alert or other such emergency notifications. I saw a tweet the other day about a recall on Skippy peanut butter for possible salmonella contamination that I might otherwise have missed. I think that twitter can be used as a feed for messages during extreme weather or other public health emergencies.

    As a former EMS coordinator, I would shy away from using twitter to dispatch EMS. I have trained the dispatchers and sat in the 911 center in Chicago. The dispatchers are critical to sending the right crews & equipment. The public may call and say- someone has fallen – sounds like a BLS response. With the right questions, you can find out that the patient has fallen because he is unconscious and pulse-less. Many members of the general public will call 911 without knowing or knowing to give that information. Having the dispatchers give instructions on what to do: whether it is “have someone wait at the door, and put away the dog”, or “I can give you instructions on how to do CPR” – having that human contact is great for a scared caller. Of course these days, the dispatcher can almost instruct: “download this CPR app to your smart-phone and follow instructions.” I say almost, because not everyone has a smart-phone.

    Geolocation emergency function/service seems like an ideal function for either smart-phone or twitter usage for emergencies. Especially handy when someone is visiting a new city and does not know geography or locations.

    Nice again to know that you are thinking outside the box – how to evolve SoMe tools to be better integrated and useful. Thanks for being willing to blaze the trails.

  2. Thanks for giving us the EMS coordinator perspective. That’s what I mean about the subtle issues – the nuances of Twitter’s mode of communicating. Traditional EMS response doesn’t linearly port into Twitter; and so that’s where I think it would be nice to have the pros contribute efforts in figuring out how best to use the medium.

  3. Phil —

    As a recovering EMS system regulator, I would join in Susan’s comment that there’s usually a lot more to the 911 call than the one-way communication of “man down at 33rd and 3rd.” I would not want twt #911 to be seen as an alternative to dialing 911, and I’m not sure we can ask cash-strapped 911 communications agencies to monitor another communications modality. However, at the same time it seems clear that some folks will be tweeting their emergencies whether we like it or not, and I understand your desire to see this systematized in some way. I would advise local systems not to advertise the fact that they are monitoring social media channels unless they are prepared to dedicate significant resources to doing so, since the unfortunate truth is that they’ll end up getting sued for allegedly screwing up no matter what they do.

    Some of us rely on twitter for communication, but most people do not. Once in a great while it may make sense to twt #911 rather than dial 911, but to me that’s the exception, not the rule. (There’s a recent local instance of someone tweeting his emergency becasue his cell phone battery was about to die – though how he knew there was one tweet left and not one call left is beyond me, and he had great faith in his twitter followers, some of whom, fortunately, called 911 the old-fashioned way.)

    I come down on the curmudgeon side of the question. E-911 works. (Before going live in Boston, the five different “Washington Streets” in different parts of town had to be appropriately ID’d in the E-911 system. Now ambulances don’t get dispatched to the wrong Washington Street. They used to.) Municipalities need to spend their emergency response dollars on fielding FTEs. Twitter is good for a lot of things, but I don’t think it’s the right mode of communication for 911 calls, at least not now.

    1. Excellent points, David – just was I was looking to get here.

      And that’s actually going to the heart of the question: there’s a lot of nuances and ramifications – but over the long-run, if these are the main media, we’ll have to address it eventually.

      That’s the part that I hope isn’t lost here.

  4. Good question, Phil.

    For Twitter, I can definitely see now verified organizations tweeting alert to things like flooding, hurricane, tornado warnings, amber alerts and assigning a hashtags to it, so others using twitter can group together, offer support, give locations-based updates.

    As far as people alerting emergency response, first thought would be creating a list of in twitter of local and state emergency depts to follow, so they’re at hand in a moment’s notice. It definitely an interesting idea worth brainstorming more about though, but I guess it will develop in cities/areas that see the potential in it and lay a framework down.

    That reminds me of a posting a friend shared. Her local PD (the Milwaukee Police Department found a toddler alone at McDonalds on Mar 6. They took a photo, posted it on FB very same day. No one claimed the child, but the word was spreading every where. The local news covered it later and the next day, a relative saw and called the parents to tell them their daughter was missing. The posting:

    I hadn’t seen FB used in this way before, but I think it is a great start and it’s something that should be explored more. Plus I think it is a lesson on how information can start on a social site and still reach others who do not have access.

  5. Hi Phil,

    There has been some great work done in coordinating emergency response in many international areas in recent times, starting with the Haiti earthquake and recently seen in the Queensland cyclone Yasi (http://www.cs.colorado.edu/~starbird/TtT_CycloneYasi_map_byTime.html) and Christchurch earthquake.

    Check out Tweak the Tweet – http://www.cs.colorado.edu/~starbird/blog/tweak_the_tweet_-_social_an.html,
    and Project Epic – http://epic.cs.colorado.edu/

    Its a fascinating and potentially powerful tool



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