In the last few years, there's been an explosion of technology and more and more people are turning to social media as an evolutionary method of emergency communications.
For better or worse, Twitter and Facebook are now considered by the public viable means of connecting with emergency services.
To verify what many had suspected, the American Red Cross recently conducted a social media survey that revealed the public is relying on social media as a form of emergency communication. The surprise was that those who do use social media to report emergencies expect someone to be on the receiving end and ready to respond getting the needed help to the individual in an hour or less.
The organization questioned 1,058 adults in an online survey and one in five said they would one in five respondents would use e-mail, websites or social media if they couldn't reach 9-1-1. Of those same respondents 44 percent said they would ask other people in their social net work to contact authorities, 35 percent would post a request for help directly on a response agency's Facebook page and 28 percent would send a direct Twitter message to responders.
Wendy Harman is the director of social media for the American Red Cross and was a catalyst for the survey.
"It became clear to me, and for us, that there's an expectation in the public that responders are monitoring social media and will respond to requests for help," Harman said in a telephone interview.
Recent items in the news and antidotal stories bear witness to that phenomenon as well.
A bicyclist in Connecticut suffered injuries when she crashed in a remote wooded area during a mini-triathlon. The woman, an amateur cyclist from Philadelphia tried screaming for help but no one heard her, according to an article published by "USA Today."
She was just far enough out of range to make a call her cell phone, but she did have enough to send a Twitter message: "I've had a serious injury and NEED Help!" she typed. "Can someone please call Winding Trails in Farmington, CT tell them I'm stuck bike crash in woods."
Within minutes, more than a half dozen people notified authorities and shortly after, the woman heard an ambulance siren. Her Tweet for help was heard.
A similar event happened recently in Atlanta. A city councilman used Twitter to notify paramedics of a woman suffering at a downtown intersection, according to WSBTV, Channel 2 in Atlanta. The councilman's cell phone battery was low and he was concerned about losing power during a 9-1-1 call. Instead, he Tweeted: "Need a paramedic on corner of John Wesley Dobbs and Jackson st. Woman on the ground unconscious. Pls ReTweet."
Within seconds, fellow Twitter followers were on the phone with 9-1-1 and the paramedics took the woman to a nearby hospital for treatment of seizures.
Harman, Red Cross' social media rep., had a similar experience herself when the devastating earthquake hit Haiti on Jan. 12.
Haitians started Tweeting that loved ones were trapped and needed help. Harman intercepted at least one of those message sent to the American Red Cross and tried to mobilize aid. What she didn't realize, however, was the magnitude and scope of the need and the difficulty of mobilizing assistance.
"It became clear to me about what I could and I could not do," Harman said. "I think I was a little naïve."
What she did realize though is that when all other forms of communications are down, people will use whatever means they can to get help. Twitter and email will sometimes work when other conventional means, like landline phone service and even cell phones won't
From that experience with the Haitians looking for help, Harman decided to conduct a survey about the public's habits and then convene a summit of important emergency service providers to reveal the results.
"It was a very disparate group of people all in one room," she said of the 2010 Emergency Social Data Summit which was held on Aug. 12 in Washington, D.C.
Harman said emergency service providers, federal agencies, including representatives of from the White House, policy makers from Facebook, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), all gathered to talk about how social media is changing the face of emergency service delivery and alerting.
From the summit, it was also noted that messages and photos transmitted from the site of the accident or disaster can change the perception of the severity of the emergency and even the response, Harman said.
While no one is looking to create a new 9-1-1 system, most agencies in the social media business and those in the emergency services recognize Twitter, Facebook and other networking devices and systems do augment the traditional services.
Police departments and dispatching centers, like the Boston Police, monitor social network postings and respond to them as auxiliary method of emergency communications.
Harman said there are only a few drawbacks with social media for emergency communications. It can be challenging to determine if the request for help is recent, or something that was posted a while ago and multiple postings from different sources about the same event make it difficult to discern if there's more than one accident or disaster the exact nature of the event.
She said there are technical aspects to making social media more generically accepted and there will have to be application program interface (API) software programs that will allow different types of social media to work together, Twitter and Facebook, for instance.
Another alternative is a brand new "agnostic" platform could be created to allow all kinds of requests for emergency help to be received from any system.
"It's so cool that we have this intersession of technology to help with in times of crisis," Harman said.
She added that after the summit, when more voices were heard and more information was shared, everyone realized that social media is in its infancy when it comes to using it for emergency communications. She said a white paper will be generated soon to really examine the issues.
"Right now, we have more questions than we have answers," Harman said.