Here's a public safety quiz: Can you tweet for emergency help? Can you text 9–1–1? If you post on Facebook that your house is on fire, should you expect a rescue crew? Social media is changing the world and now it's affecting how people reach out during a crisis. But can you count on it?
When dispatchers at a 9–1–1 center got a call from someone across the country alerting them to a local fire, they were puzzled.
911 dispatcher: "My caller is actually in Indiana."
Fire station: "Okay."
911 dispatcher: "And was playing online and someone posted that he was disabled and his stove was on fire and he couldn't get out."
"I was getting to the point where 'someone better come.'" 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 percent of people would use social media to alert rescue crews if they couldn't call 9–1–1.
That's what Kwanza Hall did after 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."
But experts warn while both Bob and Kwanza were lucky, relying on social media in an emergency is risky. "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. And if dispatchers are alerted to a post, they also have to figure out if it's a prank. "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, like this one just can't afford it. "Our resources are stretched to the limit."
Public safety experts say despite the high-tech world we live in, dialing 9–1–1 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 are thankful. "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.
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