When the Super Bowl came to Indianapolis in February, the National Football League had a specific goal: to make this the most socially connected Super Bowl in history.

“They wanted to leverage social media to get the word out about how fantastic the experience was over the two-week period,” said Ty Wooten, an Indianapolis-based 911 training consultant and member of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) education advisory board, who spoke on the topic during NENA’s conference in Long Beach, Calif., in May.

Indeed, the Super Bowl is not just a football game; it is a phenomenon that lasts a fortnight and includes a plethora of ancillary activities, such as the Super Bowl Experience and the Super Bowl Village. It also attracts lots and lots of people—with as many as 1 million revelers descending upon the city’s downtown area as festivities peaked within a few days of the game.

Knowing the NFL’s plan, the city and its public-safety agencies hatched their own clever plan for harnessing the power of social media. A social-media command post was created to monitor all of the postings, tweets and blogs, which exceeded 65 million over a month-long period beginning on Jan.5 and extended five days after the game, Wooten said. A trial run had been conducted at the Big Ten football championship game in Indianapolis the previous November.

The social-media center—housed in a 2800-square-foot space in downtown Indianapolis near Lucas Oil Stadium that had a mile of Ethernet cable running through it, according to Wooten—was manned by 50 volunteers from neighboring colleges, though a few came from as far away as Tennessee. They monitored just about every imaginable social-media platform, including Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and YouTube. They accomplished this daunting task by working with Ball State University to develop algorithms specific to this task, and by leveraging off-the-shelf social-media-monitoring software developed by Burlington, Mass.-based Awareness, Inc.

“They tracked not only what was said but how it was said,” Wooten said.

The algorithms sorted through all of the chatter and divided it into two essential buckets: positive and negative. A color-coding scheme was used to make it easy for volunteers to discern between the two. Meanwhile, the social-media monitoring software kept tabs on 500 keywords that had been identified for this event; the keywords increasingly enlarged the more that tweeters, bloggers and posters used them, which provided volunteers with another important visual cue.

Negative comments were given rapt attention, and responses to them were formulated and relayed—but not before they were vetted by a team of attorneys from the city and the NFL. That process didn’t slow down things as much as one might think, Wooten said.

“They had developed, in advance, a variety of pre-determined responses and canned messages,” he said. “So, policies were a key to this effort. They knew in advance who was going to respond, how they would respond and who was going to approve the message.”

The vast majority of the negative comments were benign—complaints about parking and long waits at restaurants topped the list—and there were no major incidents that would have required a public-safety response, according to Wooten.

“They had a few lost kids, and a few drunken people who got separated from their friends, but that was about it,” Wooten said.

Nevertheless, they were prepared for the possibility of a major incident. A dedicated e-mail account was established that was monitored by FBI and local public-safety personnel. If the social-media monitors had uncovered something that they believed required a public-safety response, they would have sent an e-mail to that box to alert authorities.

There actually was one relatively minor event that triggered such an e-mail. The Super Bowl Committee’s website had been hacked on the morning of the game, with the perpetrator adding a pornographic image to the site’s home page. A social monitor discovered a blog post in which the author included a screenshot of the altered home page. Working with the social-media command post, the FBI was able to identify the IP address of the blogger.

“He got a phone call from the FBI telling him to remove the post,” Wooten said. “They told him that, if he didn’t, they were going to come get him—and that someone already was on the way.”

In Weakley County, Tenn., social media is being used to save lives. Jamison Peevyhouse, the county’s director of emergency 911 services, also spoke at NENA’s conference and shared some specific examples. But first, he tossed out a few interesting statistics. For instance, 18% of Americans use social media to get information about emergencies, while 24% use social tools to let others know that they’re safe in the aftermath of such an event.

To illustrate his point—that public-safety agencies need to pay attention to social media, if they aren’t already—Peevyhouse pointed to last year’s earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan. In the immediate aftermath, more than 1,200 tweets per minute were being transmitted from Tokyo alone, so many that the hashtags #earthquake and #tsunami trended almost immediately, he said.

Peevyhouse also said that 80% of Americans expect public safety to monitor social media, and more than one-third of them expect first responders to arrive at their front door within one hour of them posting such a need to a social-networking site.

Sometimes, citizen monitoring of social media can stave off disaster. Peevyhouse told of an incident where two friends of a man whose wife and son had died noticed a Facebook item the man had posted. In the post the man wrote that he was going to “see his son one last time.” Concerned, one of the friends —who lived in a neighboring county —called 911, told the call-taker about the post and mentioned that the son was buried in a cemetery located in Weakley County.

The call-taker transferred the call to Weakley’s public-safety answering point, which dispatched police to the cemetery. Officers intercepted the man about a half mile from the cemetery. He had a loaded weapon. According to Peevyhouse, the man was inebriated and his intention to commit suicide was clear. Fortunately, the officers were able to intervene, and a life was saved.

That story was enough to convince Peevyhouse that social media can be a very important tool in the first-responder toolbox. But monitoring social media during or after an event is only so effective. Much more beneficial is using social media to get people out of harm’s way before a catastrophe occurs.

This can be particularly helpful during a weather-related event. Weakley 911 monitors local weather advisories constantly, and posts warnings as soon as possible, often as early as 36 hours before the expected event. Then they keep at it.

“About 17% of our ‘friends’ will read each post, and another 3% will share it,” Peevyhouse said. “That seems low, but if you keep posting every few hours or so, it will propagate quickly.”

In addition, the agency also leverages a Facebook feature that allows it to create ads and push them out to a targeted audience. The recipient pool can be segmented using several qualifiers, including ZIP code, age and gender. For example, an ad that contains a heat advisory could be sent to the elderly or to households where very young children reside. Anyone who clicks on the ad is transported to the agency’s Facebook page, which provides complete details.

“You very quickly can drill down your message,” Peevyhouse said. “You will pay for this service, but it’s very cheap.”

Facebook isn’t the only tool that Weakley 911 uses. The agency also leverages Twitter Maps, which allows one to see all of the tweets related to a specific event over the previous six hours. For example, type in the keyword “wildfire” and all of the posts within the affected area will appear on the map. According to Peevyhouse, Twitter Maps is a particularly effective situational-awareness tool, because the tweets often contain photo attachments. “You can use this for damage assessment,” he said.

Another useful tool is Twitscoop, which Peevyhouse described as “sort of a buzz meter.” Here’s how it works: the client keeps tabs on what people are tweeting about at any given moment; the more that people tweet about a certain topic, the larger the keyword associated with that topic appears on the screen. Keywords of interest can then be typed into Twitter Map to see what people in one’s area are saying about that topic.

There are times, however, when Facebook and Twitter aren’t enough. Schools are one prime example, because they generally don’t allow students to use these services when class is in session. So, Weakley 911 relies on e-mail blasts to get students and faculty out of harm’s way. The effort paid big dividends four years ago, as the agency sent out a blast well in advance of an approaching storm system that had the potential for tornadoes.

“The schools let out early, well before the storm hit” Peevyhouse said. “You don’t want school buses on roads when a tornado comes through town.”

One of the schools on the e-blast distribution list was the University of Tennessee at Martin, which passed the alert along to Union University, which is located in nearby Madison County (in the town of Jackson).

That was a very good move, as things turned out. The e-blast helped convince school officials to issue an evacuation order well in advance of a tornado ripping through the Union campus. While the campus suffered considerable damage and there were some injuries, no one was killed.

It seems clear that leveraging social media is something that every public-safety agency should be doing. However, Peevyhouse has one important piece of advice for any agency thinking about heading down that path.

“You can use social media to take the load off your dispatch center. If you tell people early about an impending event, they will go home early and take shelter. That will lower your call volume and save lives,” he said.

“But you need to be committed to this — don’t start it if you’re not going to finish it.”