London Firefighters Pursue Twitter Monitoring

London Fire Brigade moves to allow people to summon rescuers via Twitter, parallels "text to 911" efforts in the United States.
Could Londoners soon sound an alarm to firefighters via Twitter?

The London Fire Brigade announced Tuesday that it's exploring Twitter monitoring to help the service more quickly identify and respond to emergencies.

"With over a billion people now using Facebook and half a billion using Twitter, it's quite clear that social media is here to stay," said Rita Dexter, deputy commissioner of London Fire Brigade, in a statement. "The London Fire Brigade is the biggest fire service in the country and we think it's important to look into ways to improve how we communicate with the public and how they can get in touch with us."

To be clear, she said that anyone wishing to report a fire should still dial Britain's "999" emergency services number. But with roughly one in five adults in the United Kingdom now owing a smartphone, and the number of fixed, landline subscriptions -- from BT, amongst other telecommunications companies -- in decline, mobile devices increasingly offer another communications channel that might be tapped by emergency services providers.

[ Find out how social "leakage" played a large role in How U.K. Police Busted Anonymous Suspect. ]

Accordingly, Twitter monitoring is set to be included in the fifth version of the London Safety Plan (LSP5), developed by the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, which said the new plan will detail "how the fire and rescue service in London will be delivered over the next few years." The plan will be open for public comment in January 2013.

According to the London Fire Brigade, the LSP5 requires that the service review its use of social media -- not just as a communications tool, but to allow people to report emergencies and to trigger a response from emergency services. Accordingly, the service said it will work with the U.K. government, as well as the Metropolitan Police Service and the London Ambulance Service, to identify how such a service could be operated.

In 2010, the London Fire Brigade first began tweeting real-time information about incidents to which it was responding. A typical tweet -- this from early Tuesday morning -- read: "We're now attending a house fire on Hurst Road in Sidcup. Part of the 1st floor is alight. Four fire engines & 20 firefighters at the scene." Also in 2010, the service began using Facebook to provide fire safety information. London Fire Brigade said it now boasts the second-largest group of social media followers of any local or regional public sector organization in Britain.

Changes to how people can contact emergency services are also underway in the United States. Notably, Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski this month announced that the nation's four largest wireless carriers have agreed to support "text to 911" initiatives. AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon have all promised to make major deployments of text-to-911 capabilities beginning in 2013, and to provide nationwide coverage by May 15, 2014. Behind the scenes, carriers are working with local 911 call centers -- known as public safety answering points -- to ensure they can receive the texts.

The FCC said that the full rollout will eventually provide text-to-911 support for 90% of the country's wireless subscribers, compared with dialing 911, which covers about 98% of the country. But the FCC noted that the ability to send a text to 911 would be a valuable alternative to phone calls for people with hearing or speech disabilities.

Regardless, the FCC announcement noted that "text to 911 will be a complement to, not a substitute for, voice calls to 911 services, and consumers should always make a voice call to 911 during an emergency if they can." In addition, a recently published text-to-911 guide from the FCC warned that "in most cases, you cannot today reach 911 by sending a text message."

Will using Twitter or text messages to alert emergency services succeed? London Fire Brigade's Dexter offered a relevant historical precedent, via Britain's 999 emergency line. "When it was first set up in 1935, people said that dialing 999 to report emergencies would never work," she said. "Today BT handles over 30 million emergency calls each year. It's time to look at new ways for people to report emergencies quickly and efficiently and social media could provide the answer in the future."