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




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