When it comes to issuing alerts and related messages, a growing number of government agencies, educational institutions and others are adding Twitter to their emergency notification strategy.
An emergency notification (or mass notification), according to David Fleming, marketing manager at emergency communication systems vendor Code Blue, "is a one-way communication sent by first responders or security personnel to a large group of individuals who may be in harm's way to alert them of a security risk. This could be a weather-related incident (such as a snowstorm or a tornado), natural disaster (wildfire, earthquake, etc.), fire, medical outbreak, active shooter or chemical spill."
Traditional emergency notification channels have included:
- Press releases sent to the broadcast media (when there's enough lead time, of course)
- Automated outbound phone calling
- Email, SMS text messages
- Announcements by radio and television broadcast media
- Digital signage, including "ticker" or even screen take-over
- Web banners
- Sirens and public address systems
- Wireless emergency alerts, which are text messages sent to mobile devices within geographically-targeted cell towers' service areas
- Some organizations even offer their own mobile apps
Over the past several years, Twitter and other social media have been added to the list.
(In case you've lost track, Twitter is basically a "micro-blogging" site for "tweets," which are posts no more than 140 characters, similar to SMS text message length. Tweet content may in turn include URLs (usually "shortened") and links to attached pictures. With over half a billion registered users of 2012- although you don't have to register to be able to see publicly viewable Tweets - Twitter has been nicknamed "the SMS of the Internet.")
For example, one government agency using Twitter is the Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency (CRESA), according to Cheryl Bledsoe, division manager of emergency management for the state of Washington's Clark County. "We serve 435,000 residents, seven cities and the county in general. Information is our only commodity. We receive 911 calls and other contacts, and we communicate information to the public and to emergency response stakeholders like the police, fire, public health and public works departments, as well as to community organizations, non-profits, businesses and volunteer groups."
CRESA began using social media in 2008, according to Bledsoe. "We wanted a more dynamic way to communicate. Wireless wasn't as common then, and our website was hard to update without involving IT. We began with a blog CRESA911, on BlogSpot, which we still have, then added a Facebook fan page, and then also two Twitter accounts: @CRESA for emergency alerts and @CRESATalk for everyday information and also for emergency-related information."
Bledsoe says adding Twitter to their strategy a success. "Tweeting has helped responders find missing people in time, fill our training classes quickly and get responses when we have community requests for help," she says. "Using Twitter is more efficient for us than traditional press releases, email, etc., and by using Twitter, we have been able to enhance our reputation with the local news media and work better with them."
In addition to alerting about the events, "We communicate with the public on how they can protect themselves, help us, volunteer and other helpful announcements," says Bledsoe.