From shootings in public places to natural disasters, myriad incidents increasingly are being communicated on Twitter and Facebook before the matter is communicated to an emergency dispatcher via 911, which means public-safety answering points (PSAPs) need to consider new practices when responding to such events, according to officials from Clackamas County Communications Center (C-COM) in Oregon City, Ore.

“In emergency fires, ... [people at the scene are] taking pictures, they’re sharing that information online,” said Cheryl Bledsoe, technology and accreditation manager for C-COM. "They will call 911 eventually, for the most part; but even sometimes, they are sharing information faster than they can with their cell phone to their friends and neighbors even before they call 911.”

Bledsoe and C-COM Communications Manager Mark Spross discussed the burgeoning trend of social media reporting of emergency events during the “Virtual Operation Support Teams (VOST): Dispatchers of the Future” panel discussion at APCO 2015 last month in Washington, D.C. According to Pew Research, 87 % of the United States population utilizes online applications and social media sites. The amount of data sharing taking place online speaks to the need of public-safety answering points (PSAPs) need to receive communications not only through text but through video streaming, pictures and social media posts.

“We’re in the rebirth of 911 in our nation,” Spross said. “What we really need to be prepared for is social media. How is that stuff coming into our center? How are we going to be looking at that data? What does that mean in the future?”

C-COM officials witnessed the fast-spreading information sharing on social media firsthand during an active shooting at Clackamas Town Center a few years ago, Bledsoe said. One of Clackamas’ deputy sheriff’s daughters informed him that the active shooting had been mentioned on Twitter, but the father didn’t originally take it seriously.

“She called back and said, ‘No it’s a very serious situation. It’s been on Twitter about a minute and half.’ … After that situation was dealt with, he went back to the call [to check the time of the call]. It was shared on Twitter within 30 seconds of the 911 call.”

Monitoring those sorts of social-media updates can be handled by a virtual operation support team (VOST), a group of trusted volunteers that mine data gathered for emergency management and emergency communications from social-media sites, Bledsoe said.  Currently, 32 states have gathered VOST groups, in addition to teams in Canada, France and New Zealand that help first responders address incidents such as shootings, wildfires and hurricanes.

“The (VOST) teams that have developed are much like what the amateur-radio teams of old used to look like,” Bledsoe said. “A group of volunteers work on emergency missions that are given from the incident-command center.

“They have been active in wildfires. They want to make sure that they have the information to make sure that family notification is done in a timely manner, so the affected family doesn’t hear about it first on social media. They also take in citizens’ concerns, complaints and get feedback about the emergency response itself.”