Like an internet meme, a blog post entitled “Twitter 9-1-1: A Proposal” was shared over 100 times this past week on various social media sites. Originally written by Glen Gilmore in March of 2011, it was circulated again after a storm knocked out landline phones in New Jersey just recently.
The blog presents an idea that 9-1-1 Dispatchers could be cross-trained to monitor social media accounts and begin responding just as if they were collecting the same information via telephone call.
But is it really that easy?
Glen’s proposal offers the following steps for implementing a Twitter 9-1-1 proposal:
- Open Twitter Accounts (one for each city)
- Train Dispatchers
- Provide Computers to Call Centers
- Provide Legal Disclaimers
- Inform the Community before Launch
- Use accounts for emergency messages and reverse 9-1-1
Now, I work in an emergency management office that is co-located in a 9-1-1 facility, so I work alongside call-takers and dispatchers every day which gives me a unique perspective on this proposal.
9-1-1 Dispatchers are the lifelines for public safety officers. In some cases, they work for specific disciplines like law enforcement or fire departments; however, in my facility, we serve not only both law enforcement and fire disciplines, but also railroads, public works, ambulance, corrections and higher education facilities in our jurisdiction. Dispatchers manage 5 separate monitors in order to manage maps, incoming calls, dispatch messages and the resources within their control.
It is not unusual for a dispatcher to be managing the safety of up to 30 officers at any given point in time. Not only are 9-1-1 dispatchers dealing with the general public on the telephone, but they are monitoring for the radio message they all fear which indicates that “their” officers are in trouble. 9-1-1 Dispatchers feel strongly about the responsibility that they have to the public safety agencies that they serve.
Dispatchers have only one commodity ultimately and that is information. And when it comes to span of control, they work near the tipping point on every shift.
So, why do the words “Next Generation 9-1-1″ often strike fear into the hearts of dispatchers? Because they all individually worry about losing track of information. Having multiple input points can be scary. How many plates can a person spin in the air and still keep mental control and provide safety to the officers on the streets?
One of the common questions that my agency already receives is whether they can text 9-1-1 for service already. Unfortunately, for my agency and many others, the answer is still “no.” While the standards for Next Generation 9-1-1 have been set, the technology and operational processes have not been ironed out for 9-1-1 dispatch facilities. The safety of first responders must be taken into consideration as these processes get established.
Now, I do agree with Glen Gilmore’s post to a certain degree. I do believe that establishing a Twitter Monitoring Center is possible. I think that you could establish a team of folks who can put their eyes and ears to social media and gather information that could be actionable. Similar to an alarm-monitoring facility that monitors and confirms premise alarms, a Twitter Monitoring Center could identify tweets and follow up via conversation to gather location information and confirm the need for emergency response; however, processes like this would take some time and exploring the viability of response times and liability would be significant.
To some degree, monitoring social media during emergencies is beginning to happen by social media savvy Incident Command Posts and EOC’s which are beginning to develop and use Virtual Operation Support Teams (VOST); however, we have yet to see a centralized 24-7-365 monitoring center evolve with protocols for identifying and channeling information to emergency response organization that can deploy response assets to assist in all emergencies.
As the role of social media in emergencies and Next Generation 9-1-1 processes begin to develop, we need to keep the following issues in mind:
- We must understand the capabilities of our 9-1-1 systems as they technologically stand today,
- We must be sure that we don’t oversimplify the changes necessary both on a technology level, but also on a operational level that will be required. To fully implement a Next Generation 9-1-1 facility that can receive and monitor social media will result in new job skills, new position classifications and new technology which will, by its very existence, change the look of 9-1-1 dispatch floors.
- In the transition, emergency response entities need to consider how they will incorporate social conversations into their operational response….because I assure you, when a 9-1-1 facility receives a video message, they’re going to be seeking how to send that to the first response agency tasked with responding like a hot potato. And that action will change a police officer and fire fighter’s job forever.
As an Emergency Manager who fully appreciates the power of social media, we must be very realistic about what is right now and the road required to adapt to a community using social media to move information at lightening speeds across the world.