On Your Side
How to use social media in emergency situations
Susan Kim reports Video by tmj4.comvideo
MILWAUKEE- When dispatchers at a 911 Center got a call from someone across the country alerting them to a local fire, they were puzzled.
The 911 dispatcher says, "(He) was playing online and someone posted that he was disabled and his stove was on fire and he couldn't get out."
Firefighters didn't brush it off as a prank-- they suited up, jumped in their truck and raced to this house to find smoke pouring out of the windows. Bob Chambers, who suffers from Muscular Dystrophy, and has limited movement, was inside and home alone. When a fire started, he couldn't reach the phone so he used his specialized keyboard to tap out a message to people he was playing a game with through facebook.
"A couple people that knew me shouted back 'Are you kidding?' I went 'no!'"
More and more cases of people posting cyber cries for help are popping up across the world. A recent Red Cross survey found 44% of people would use social media to alert rescue crews if they couldn't call 911. That's what Kwanza Hall did aft'er he discovered an unconscious woman on the street. His phone battery was about to die, so he tweeted 'please call the paramedics', and gave his followers the location. An ambulance soon showed up and rushed the woman to the hospital.
"I'm just thankful she's alive," Kwanza says.
But experts warn while both Bob and Kwanza were lucky, relying on social media in an emergency is risky.
George Rice is with The Industry Council For Emergency Response Technologies. He says, "The public's expectation of what response they will get via use of social media is far beyond the capacity of public safety agencies to deliver on."
Most agencies do not monitor social media sites, for people who need help. If dispatchers are alerted to a post, they also have to figure out if it's a prank.
County Fire Rescue team member Bill Delaney explains, "It's always difficult to discern what may be real and what may not be real."
If you do have a real emergency, is shooting a quick text to 911 an option? Though the FCC is pushing for dispatch centers nationwide to update their technology to accept texts, right now it only works in a couple places across the country. Many cities and towns just can't afford it.
Public safety experts say despite the high tech world we live in, dialing 911 is still the best way to contact emergency dispatchers. That wasn't an option in bob's case, and his cyber pleas for help worked. He and his wife Patti are thankful. She says, "I am so grateful that there was somebody out there that took it seriously."
If someone posted a request for help on a public safety agency's social media page and the department did not respond, could the agency be at risk for a lawsuit? Experts say unless an agency claimed to accept emergency calls on their twitter or Facebook page-probably not. But it's still an untested and up and coming area of the law.