MCP Insights

[Interview] The Impact Social Media is Having on the Public Safety Community

Posted on November 21, 2018 by Glenn Bischoff

As people change how they communicate, 911 must change too.

Recently MCP Insights chatted with Dr. Andrea Tapia, associate professor of information sciences and technology at Pennsylvania State University in State College, about the impact social media is beginning to have on the 911 community.

Dr. Tapia is working with Mission Critical Partners for the next year, as she takes a sabbatical from her duties at Penn State, to help public safety agencies leverage the opportunities that social media interactions provide to enhance emergency response.

Insights: Why is social media becoming more important to the emergency response community?

Tapia: Society has changed the way it communicates. Most of society is not using the telephone as it has in the past. This isn’t true of only the younger generations—even older people are changing. My 75-year-old father is texting now rather than making phone calls, mostly because his children and grandchildren insist that he do so. The middle and younger generations are changing because they want to, while the older generations are changing because they must. Most of society—even the reluctant—are changing.

Insights: Why should this matter to emergency response officials?

Tapia: When a crisis occurs, people reach for what they are accustomed to, what they use every day. The youngest generations don’t make phone calls, the text—they think making phones calls is ridiculous, something that their grandparents used to do. They will make an emergency phone call if that’s the only way that they can get help, but it seems unnatural to them. They think, why would the 911 person want to listen to a screaming person on the other end of the line, when he or she can more simply and effectively read a text and get direct information without all the emotion.

Insights: So, what should emergency response officials be doing about this?

Tapia: The 911 community must evolve, or it is going to become obsolete. We’re already seeing the 911 system be circumnavigated. Last year during the Early Adopter Summit hosted by the North Central Texas Council of Governments, it was reported that the users of the Waze crowd-sourcing application reported an emergency event before a 911 call is placed 40 percent of the time, and that Waze events precede the 911 call by four minutes on average. In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey last year, people found ways to get help for themselves when the 911 system was overwhelmed, largely by reaching out to each other. You’ve probably heard of the Cajun Army and Cajun Navy, those ad hoc groups of volunteers who have rescued thousands of citizens affected by dangerous storms and flooding over the last few years.

Insights: But don’t you still have to dial 911 if you want the fire trucks to come to your home when it’s burning or the police to arrive if it’s being burglarized?

Tapia: Yes, for right now. But in the future, we could see private law enforcement and fire/rescue services that will get help to you faster than the government can. We already have private ambulance and emergency medical services. This will play out first in the wealthiest communities, but once it works for them it will scale for other communities. It’s on its way.

Insights: The public safety and emergency response communities traditionally have been slow to change—what is needed to get them to embrace this thinking?

Tapia: The key is to find the forward-looking people—those who are willing to take risks and are positioned to do so—to become champions of this way of thinking. People like Christy Williams at NCTCOG and Jim Lake at Charleston County 911 (which sponsored last year’s Early Adopter Summit) who can demonstrate success and get others to follow. Because of these early adopters, others will find it easier to change.

In a future blog, MCP Insights will explore the results of a pilot project completed in September that tested the use of social media data in emergency response.

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