Facebook used instead of 9-1-1? New worries for first responders

September 17, 2009

I just returned from speaking to the Kansas Emergency Management Association conference. It was a real treat talking with a group of dedicated emergency managers at the state, city and county levels. One of the issues we discussed was the liability and public expectations around using social media such as Twitter or Facebook to request assistance. Liability may be a big concern but so is public expectation. What happens when using these two becomes second nature to people, particularly young people, and they believe that when you are in trouble you can call for help using Twitter or Facebook?

Then, getting back to the office, I was referred to this story out of Australia. Two young girls, ages 10 and 12 were caught in a drain. Fortunately they had a mobile phone with them. Unfortunately, the decided to use that mobile phone to text a message to their Facebook page instead of using it to dial Triple Zero, the Australian equivalent of 9-1-1. Fortunately, some of their friends on Facebook saw their cry for help. And fortunately, they remembered that a mobile phone is for more than texting and dialed the fire service who responded and rescued the girls. Unfortunately, this may become a trend and it is worrying the Australian authorities as it ought to be worrying all response organizations/

The story on C-Net says: Since emergency services are only available by dialing Triple Zero, the firefighters couldn’t have known the girls were in the drain until someone called. The organization is even more concerned that contacting social networks, rather than dialing Triple Zero, will become a trend.

This is the same issue the Coast Guard raised earlier and I commented on in this blog. Some are dealing with this by making it clear that their Twitter page or Facebook page is not to be used for emergency calls. LAFD’s Twitter page says Call 9-1-1 to report an emergency. However, this doesn’t change the fact that when more and more people are living their lives on social media sites and using text to communicate to anyone and everyone they care about, it won’t even occur to them to use what they are told to use. Ultimately, it is public expectations and demands that will win. As challenging as it sounds I am coming to think that response agencies are going to have to figure out how to deal with this new reality.

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