Online social networking has infiltrated most aspects of our lives, particularly those under the age of 25. Web sites like MySpace, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are all the rage among the techno-savvy crowd. However, one arena that I thought would slowly — if ever — adopt these forms of communication is public safety.

I was wrong. While it may not the talk of the industry or a first priority for any public-safety agency, an increasing number of first-responder entities have embraced the notion of social networking, at least in the case of Twitter. One such agency is the Boston Police Department, which has seen activity on its Twitter site explode since opening it on March 1.

Donald Denning, the city of Boston's public-safety CIO, said his private-sector background at HP Labs and Intel made it natural for him to consider the potential of using social networking to improve the city's service to the community.

"When I came here to the public sector, I said, 'Why do we spend gazillions and gazillions on IT investments when we can look at leveraging free, commercially available tools to do things for people?" Denning said during an interview with Urgent Communications.

Initially, the police department's Twitter site simply showed incidents as they occurred through the day. For the annual St. Patrick's Day Parade and the Boston Marathon, Twitter was used to share information about closed streets, tow zone and the need to clear an area to allow emergency vehicles through, Denning said. These messages were able to be viewed by mobile-device users at the site — and can be distributed virally to the Twitter network — making it more valuable than many other methods of communication, he said.

In addition to pushing information on Twitter, the police department is able to receive — privately — tips and other information through the site, Denning said. In fact, the police department monitors Twitter for emergency pleas for help, because Boston — like most cities — does not have a 911 system that is capable of accepting text messages and photos.

"If you're in a situation where you can't talk, it's a great way to do [seek emergency aid]," Denning said.

Denning was quick to note that no one associated with the Boston police considers Twitter to be a venue that is even remotely mission critical, noting that the Twitter server does get bogged down at times. However, as a backup means for emergency alerting to the community — and one that likely will get more subscribers than a typical emergency-alert notification system — it can be a useful tool, he said.

"We have not had an Amber Alert event since we went live [with Twitter], but we do plan on leveraging this for Amber Alerts," Denning said. "It would be absolutely perfect."

Denning said the city of Boston is using Twitter in other department of the city — the public-health department has been disseminating information about the swine flu this week — where to share messages in real time with the public.

Of course, one important aspect of Twitter is that there is virtually no cost associated with an agency using the technology. For a cash-strapped town that can't afford a sophisticated emergency-alert notification system, Twitter may be a valuable tool that can be used to "get the word out" until better economic times arrive.

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