Americans Expect Emergency Responders To Monitor Social Media

Red Cross finds that in a disaster many people would post cries for help on Facebook and Twitter, assuming they'd be answered.
What happens if there's an area-wide emergency, but you can't get through on the phone to 911? One in five people, according to a new study, would try and contact emergency services through digital means, such as e-mail or social networking.

Not surprisingly, then, according to the new survey of more than 1,000 U.S. adults conducted in July 2010 by Infogroup and sponsored by the American Red Cross, 69% of respondents also believe that emergency responders should be monitoring social media sites to dispatch help.

"The first and best choice for anyone in an emergency situation is to call 911," according to Gail McGovern, president and CEO of the American Red Cross. "But when phone lines are down or the 911 system is overwhelmed, we know that people will be persistent in their quest for help and use social media for that purpose."

If 911 lines were busy, the survey found that people would still continue to try their phone or cell phone 42% of the time, 18% would switch to digital means, 16% would walk or drive for help, and 4% would try to raise help via a text message. But while roughly half of respondents believe that emergency responders would be actively monitoring social networks, 44% said such monitoring would be unlikely.

Meanwhile, respondents said that if they knew of someone else who needed help during an area-wide emergency and 911 lines were busy, half would "probably or definitely" try texting for help on their behalf, 44% would reach out to friends via Facebook or Twitter, 35% would post a request for help on the appropriate response agency's Facebook page, and 28% would tweet the agency.

Perhaps that reliance on social networking in emergencies shouldn't be surprising, since 58% of respondents use Facebook and 15% use Twitter. But are emergency response organizations keeping up with the social networking times?

"The social web is creating a fundamental shift in disaster response -- one that will ask emergency managers, government agencies, and aid organizations to mix time-honored expertise with real-time input from the public," said McGovern. "We need to work together to better respond to that shift," she said.