What Social Media Means for Public Safety

Social media has radically influenced how we learn about today’s current events. When disaster or a major event occurs, digital platforms and social media are often the first source of real-time information and traditional news sources look to social media for up-to-the-minute information. Social media and digital networks are their own news sources, leading the way for user generated public safety.

After the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan early this year, thousands tweeted, and re-tweeted), real-time details. In part, because of this real-time data stream, San Francisco and other California coastal cities were able to take swift precautions and warn people to stay away from the waterfront, and implement road closures in at risk areas.

This shift in information sourcing has widespread implications. Information now spreads rapidly among citizenry, while oftentimes first responders still face knowledge barriers because of out-dated technology. To help address this challenge, the FCC and 911 are working to integrate new communications tools.

911 Technology is Outdated

911 is an indispensable lifesaving tool, but today’s 911 systems still operate using 20th Century technology. According to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, about 70% of 911 calls are made from mobile phones – yet, despite the birth of Smartphones and text messaging, the only way to contact 911 is by traditional phone calls.

The Federal Communications Commission is moving to fix this critical flaw in the antiquated emergency-call systems. The project called Next Generation 911; will expand 911’s receiving capabilities from traditional phone calls alone, and would allow anyone with a mobile device to reach 911 in case of emergency, no matter what the means: text message, video, photo, or voice call.

The FCC plans to have the new technology available to the public within the next 5 to 10 years. Next Generation 911 will also have automatic location information, so 911 can pinpoint exactly where the emergency is. 911’s plan to implement location information could also allow 911 texts to potentially be forwarded to the Smartphones of cops who are closest to the crime. This would aid in response time.

User Generated Public Safety

Expanding 911 to include additional forms of communication is a step toward public safety 2.0 & user generated public safety. Technology is already being used to improve public safety by making it more efficient, effective and accessible. Governments, like NYC are using technology to send targeted text messages to citizen’s cell phones in the event of a terrorist attack or national disaster. San Francisco has a similar but much more limited system called Alert SF Notification System. Further we’ve seen the role smartphone technology plays in helping to identify criminals and help solve crimes. It only makes sense that this same technology should be used to report crimes and emergencies.

While the FCC hopes to have text, video, and photo capabilities at all 911 dispatch centers in the next 5 to 10 years, there is no proposed timeline. 5 to 10 years is a long way out, especially given the rate at which technology changes. Like Chicago, individual cities can choose to move towards more tech capable 911-dispatch centers without waiting for the FCC plan to happen. The FCC has granted waivers to 22 jurisdictions to begin building out their public safety broadband networks.

You can read the FCC’s press release online.