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9-1-1 Magazine: Managing Emergency Communications

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Information Sharing in the Era of Social Media

Author: Chris Russo, ELERTS

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2011-07-25
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Communication systems in emergency management are the most talked-about, debated, assessed and sometimes, the most frustrating aspects of an emergency response effort. In more than 25 years as a first responder and emergency manager, I have seen incredible and positive changes in how we communicate on the fire ground, how we send real-time information from the ambulance to the hospital, and how we inform the public of impending danger. Emergency communications are an art and a science, and with today’s emerging technologies, we are finding new ways to improve our results across all of our communications platforms.

There are three areas of emergency communications that have seen progress, but need continued improvement: interoperability between responding agencies and other municipalities; incoming information to Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) and 9-1-1 dispatch centers; and delivering information to an engaged and connected public, given the rise in popularity of social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook.

Firefighters, police officers and emergency medical personnel commonly respond together to incidents every day. If they are from the same town, they are usually able to communicate with each other via radio and through their respective or common dispatchers. A complex incident may involve state police, a hazmat team, or other agencies, and the larger the response, the more likely the responders cannot easily talk with each other.

As we approach the 10 year anniversary of the September 11th attacks we have only scratched the surface of interoperability given what technology can provide. The complications of antiquated infrastructure couple with unfunded federal mandates could be the ultimate demise for many agencies that are barely getting by with level funded budgets. The reality of regional services for communications not only makes sense but provides a better solution embracing technology.

There are more than 8,000 Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) in the US, where emergency phone calls are received and dispatchers interview callers to decide what action to take.  This typically involves asking a series of questions of the caller so the dispatcher can put together a picture in their mind of the emergency being reported.  The caller may be frantic or hysterical, and the information given may reflect the caller’s high stress state of mind.  Dispatchers are trained in how to communicate with upset callers. They get to the root of the call, and decide how to dispatch first responders, police and other emergency services to the incident.

PSAPs are not all wired together with high speed fiber networks, able to communicate, collaborate and coordinate as a single entity, as viewers of TV shows like "24" may erroneously think.  Most PSAPs are small operations.  The reality is inter-PSAP communication is rare and informal at best.  Generally PSAPs operate independently, without the benefit of fluid communications to other PSAPs.

Virtually none can accept a text message or email with a photograph from a citizen who wishes to report an emergency.  Yet people are taking thousands of photos of accident scenes and other crisis’ on a daily basis, using the readily available cameras in their mobile phones.  The PSAP’s inability to receive photographic reports from citizens is an impediment to analyzing the incident and a capability that all PSAPs will have at some time in the future.  Smartphones are in the hands of over 35% of citizens already and that number is growing quickly.  iPhones are growing in popularity and so are Android-based smartphones, with Google  reportedly activating more than 500,000 new smartphones each day.

People on the streets are using their smartphone cameras aggressively.  Recently I was the initial first responder on the scene of a three-car accident.  As I approached one of the drivers in a vehicle to check on him, I heard "click, click, click, click".  Looking behind me, I saw five people snapping pictures of the accident with their mobile phones.  Photographs of this incident were most likely posted on Facebook and Twitter even before I could check on the status of the 2nd car involved in the accident.  The public gets to see these pictures almost in realtime, but public safety people who could benefit the most from seeing such images, do not.

Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, photosharing sites like Flickr, effectively are allowing watchful people with mobile phones to become “citizen reporters.”  They are the eyes and ears everywhere. Citizen reporters are the first to publish reports of local traffic backups, car accidents, storm damage, and even earthquakes in Japan and New Zealand. Rather than considering this “fire hose” of data from the public as a liability to be controlled or ignored, emergency managers are realizing that by treating the public as an asset, they have unprecedented access to real-time photos, video, and text descriptions from the most qualified of sources, those people who have observed and survived an emergency.

A photo or evacuation map in a time of crisis can make an incredible difference in the quality of the emergency alert. If a mobile user’s phone can accept multimedia emergency alerts, they should be able to take advantage of that dramatically better information. People in harm’s way need the best information available to mitigate threats. Additionally, because of the bidirectional, social nature of smart platforms, government can also benefit from additional intelligence and information generated from the very citizens they are trying to protect.
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As emergency managers, we have the opportunity to make dramatic changes in the way we do business. If we continue to allow silo solutions for communications, we will suffer the fate of tradition rather than true progress. We have seen time and time again that relying solely on State and Federal assets to come in and pick up the pieces and foot the bill is an unrealistic expectation. If we are to succeed in keeping our people safe from harm’s way we must look to technology and the solutions at our finger tips. The common denominator that precipitates failure during most emergencies is the breakdown of communications between responders and citizens. Well informed allows for well prepared.

Chris Russo, EVP, is the founder of ELERTS, a revolutionary new emergency communications system that uses smartphones and social media to help First Responders save lives. Russo is also a Deputy Fire Chief in Hull (MA) and a veteran first responder.   For more information on ELERTS, see:




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