How Social Media Challenges First Responders, PSAPs During Disasters
Tuesday, January 30, 2018 | Comments
During recent disasters such as the 2017 U.S. hurricanes and wildfires, public-safety answering points (PSAPs) in the disaster areas received a flood of nontraditional requests for emergency service over social media.

During Hurricane Harvey, the wait time for answering a call to Houston’s PSAP climbed as high as 3.5 hours, said Michael Walter, public information officer (PIO) for Houston’s Office of Emergency Management.

“You can imagine that frustrated a lot of people, so they reached out to us in a variety of ways,” Walter said during a virtual town hall on social media held by the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC).

Citizens are using social media to reach out for 9-1-1 help both when 9-1-1 services are down and when they are up and running. Those nontraditional calls for help pose challenges for public-safety agencies that do not have the manpower to constantly monitor social media or the policies to address such nontraditional calls, said Barry Luke, deputy executive director, NPSTC.

Additionally, sometimes citizens groups will monitor social media for requests for help and, in some cases, respond to help those people, which can cause confusion about the emergency response.

“Previously, I would have said you could never set a precedent by responding to a request for help on social media,” said Walter. “But I could never have imagined the amount of nontraditional calls for help that came in.”

While first responders were unable to respond to many of the calls because of the conditions of the roads and other infrastructure, Houston officials still developed an Excel spreadsheet to organize and categorize the large number of requests and help plan any potential response.

In Boca Raton, Florida, during Hurricane Irma, the Boca Raton Police Department established both a citizens information center (CIC) for traditional phone calls from people seeking information, as well as a team to monitor social media throughout the storm.

The CIC received fewer calls than it had during previous disasters, but the social media accounts for the police and other city departments were inundated with messages, said Mark Economou, public information manager for the Boca Raton Police Department.

“Hurricane Irma showed that [social media] is the way to communicate today,” Economou said.

While more people are using social media to communicate with emergency officials, it’s important to remember demographics that might not have access to or use social media, said Daron Wyatt, PIO for the Anaheim (California) police and fire departments.

During the recent Canyon Fire 2, Anaheim emergency officials used Twitter to provide updates to media and Facebook to provide updates to both media and residents. But after the fire, officials heard from elderly residents who did not use social media and did not receive some of the updates until the neighbors came by.

Anaheim has a subscription-based alerting system, but residents have to sign up online to receive the alerts. The city is also working to get the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) set up for the area, but that process has been slow, Wyatt said.

“We have to find a way that we are communicating to all of our residents, even those who aren’t on social media,” he said.

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On 2/1/18, Cecil Dyer said:
For those folks who do not use social media, what happened to the emergency broadcasts from the public radio stations?

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