Social media is changing everything, including how people are alerted to impending emergencies.
InformationWeek posted a story last week keyed on Hurricane Isaac. The piece said that the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration has granted $879,000 to four groups that are working on ways to harness these tools to help disseminate alerts and information on severe weather. The grants are well described in the story.
While grants from NOAA could indicate that research is just starting, the reality is that social networks have been an increasingly important element of emergency communications for years. It’s a natural: On one hand an increasing percentage of people use social networks; on the other, wireless networks tend to crash when the emergencies occur.
Examples abound. The Daily Mail, a site that covers West Virginia, earlier this month posted a story describing how the communities of Nitro and St. Albans are using a system called Nixle to alert areas in danger via text, email and social media. The story said that 58 police and fire departments, cities and emergency centers use the system, which facilitates messages from law enforcement to registered users’ phones without cost to either party.
The system is not just for weather emergencies. Indeed, the nature of social networks and networking makes Nixle’s job — and other systems like it — flexible. Perhaps it could be called “mission-creep” in a positive way. One of the main contributors to the story was Nitro Interim Police Chief Brian Oxley:
However, the chief also said that the department is still working on identifying what type of alerts should be sent. He said that events like major accidents blocking roads or long traffic delays could be part of the notifications. Important information for residents is also a priority, such as a reminder to lock cars if there is a sharp increase in vehicle thefts.
The government, according to NextGov, is actively pushing use of social networks for both emergency and non-emergency situations. The site said that the Federal Emergency Management Agency appealed to the 91,000 friends to send a particular message to residents of the Gulf Coast:
In that message, the disaster-response agency was looking to avoid congested phone lines by encouraging residents to alert family members of their well-being using texts and social media. It was emblematic of a government-wide effort to utilize social media as a key tool in distributing rapidly changing information to large quantities of people in a timely matter.
The Japanese government is holding three open meetings between now and March to consider 911-enabling social networks, according to PCWorld. Japan may even be more sensitive to disaster preparedness than other nations due to its vulnerability to disasters. The earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant last year only are the latest examples.
Social networks clearly have changed the way in which emergencies are handled. It’s a two-way street: Officials, if they use the technology correctly, can reach more people in more ways with better information. Social networks also let people network with each other. Indeed, it is a replay of the value proposition for social networks overall. The difference is those advantages are felt in a real-time and concentrated manner and in life-and-death situations.