Posted by: Melissa De Lyser | November 16, 2013

De Lyser, Week 7: Communicating emergencies via social media or 911?

In 2009, two Australian girls became trapped in a storm drain.  With limited cell phone life, they posted their emergency on Facebook rather than call the Australian equivalent of 911.  It took four hours before someone reported the situation to authorities, who rescued the girls.

The story attracted widespread media attention. Law enforcement weighed in, advising people that social media was not for emergency use.  Officers pointed out, correctly, that the girls would have been rescued sooner if they had called emergency services.

Fast forward four years and the message has changed.  Not completely – I suspect most law enforcement would prefer to receive emergency calls via 911 over Twitter, depending on the situation.  But both the public and law enforcement have embraced social media as a means of communicating emergencies.  This cultural shift presents new communication challenges.

Suicide hotline operators, hostage negotiators, police dispatchers – until now, their training has focused on telephone and in-person communication. Creating trust, conveying empathy and averting panic are skills that emergency personnel have developed in part by relying on tone of voice, facial expression or body language.  Can hostage negotiators talk someone out of pulling the trigger via text or Twitter?

Both law enforcement and the American Red Cross have made good use of social media platforms, as this week’s readings demonstrate.  It will be interesting to see how far, and fast, social media can move that acceptable-use point, as technology evolves.  One day, could 911 be an app-only platform, residing in the Cloud?

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