Urgent Matters

Social media can be a situational-awareness tool (with related video)

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Social media can be a valuable tool that can enhance public safety's situational awareness

Admittedly, I have been slow to embrace social media. It seems counterintuitive to me. When I want to socially interact with someone, I talk to them. People used to do that. They would sit on their front porches or stand at their backyard fences, and discuss current events, sports, politics and what their kids were up to. Now they text, tweet and post.

On the other hand, it is becoming crystal clear to me that social media can be a real boon to public safety. Recently I wrote an article that examined how social media was leveraged for two very different events, the Super Bowl and the aftermath of an F5 tornado that tore through a Tennessee town. That experience piqued my interest enough that I recently sat in on an educational session that examined the pros and cons of social media as it relates to public safety.

The session was held last month during the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO) conference in Minneapolis. The speaker was Imad Mouline, CTO of Boston-based Everbridge, who said that social media can improve dramatically public safety's situational awareness of an incident. As an example, he showed several images that were taken during the wildfire that charred a vast portion of Colorado earlier this summer.

The images were posted to various social-networking sites. One of the images was geo-tagged to indicate the location where it was captured; it showed the flames at the edge of the property; a text that accompanied the image read, "Two hours ago, the flames were miles away." That particular image spoke volumes about how the fire was progressing, Mouline said. Indeed, a picture in this case was worth a thousand words.

"The case for social media is that you really have more boots on the ground — you literally have eyes and ears everywhere. Everybody, or just about, has a [phone] that has a camera and GPS, and they're connected," Mouline said. "Twitter is being built into the operating system of the iPhone, so that everything can be re-tweeted. And people aren't shy about using these things. The question is, how do you harness it?"

Mouline offered numerous suggestions in an attempt to answer this question. Next week I'll share them with you.

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Donny Jackson

Donny Jackson is editor of Urgent Communications magazine. Before joining UC in 2002, he covered telecommunications for four years as a freelance writer and as news editor for Telephony magazine....
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