Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Twitter® for Public Safety & Emergency Management

By Joseph Mazzarella, Chief Legal Counsel
April 28, 2009

In the world of public safety, obtaining and communicating important information in real time can save lives. In this regard, new communications tools are continually be deployed to improve emergency preparedness and response capabilities within a collaborative “all hazards, all disciplines’” paradigm that implicitly requires coordinated planning and response among responders, supporting agencies and other critical assets. These communications improvements range from employing mass alerting and reverse 9-1-1 solutions to advanced multi-agency communications interoperability solutions that link together an array of disparate systems and equipment. While the emergency management sector forges ahead with innovation, the world at large is also blazing new paths and ways of communicating through internet and mobile data driven social networking utilities. Despite the natural temptation to dismiss them as pedestrian at best and frivolous at worst, these social networks may offer something of value to the public safety and emergency management sector. After all, literally millions of users cannot be all that wrong. One of the fastest growing social networking utilities among them, and the focus of this article, is Twitter®, which may offer emergency management and public safety organizations with another potentially powerful and effective communications utility to add to their communications tool chest.

Twitter® is a deceptively simple, yet powerful social networking based communications tool. As described on its web site, “Twitter is a service for friends, family and co-workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?” See, http://www.twitter.com. With Twitter®, people can follow one another and receive messages from their network of friends in real time. What makes Twitter powerful is it that it links people together around a topic, cause or person, and it provides an easy way to quickly disseminate and share messages among “followers” in the listening group. It is proving to be a popular and particularly attractive communications medium because it intersects with the “always on and available” status created by data enabled consumer mobile devices. Availability or presence is not limited to whether a user logs on to his or her computer anymore. You are always within range of your friend’s “tweet” (Twitter parlance for a message) courtesy of your Blackberry®, iPhone®, cell phone or other mobile device strapped to your hip.

Before you dismiss its potential utility, consider that Twitter is already being used in certain public safety contexts in both planned and spontaneous ways. This April, the Garden City, Kansas Police Department started using Twitter as a free public messaging tool to send out information on events, missing persons and other community advisories, as did the Franklin, Massachusetts Police Department some 1,000 miles away a few days later. In fact, a recent search of Twitter® reveals over 200 police related Twitter® micro-blogs, the largest being the Boston Police Department with over 2,100 followers. Additionally a number of local and state Offices of Emergency Management have rolled out their own Twitter alert based sites, such as Oregon OEM and University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey’s (UMDNJ) Office of Emergency Management to name a few. Beyond state and local agencies, even federal agencies have jumped on board. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has its own Twitter® micro-blog which is used for news and announcements, and another micro-blog at twitter.com/LLIS for its Lessons Learned Information Sharing web site (www.LLIS.gov) which is a community repository of best practices information for state and local homeland security and emergency response personnel. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) Emergency Preparedness and Response site uses Twitter as a mass communications tool and has over 2,000 followers. Similarly, the FDA has employed its own Twitter feed at twitter.com/FDARecalls to alert over 3,000 people of its recall of salmonella-tainted pistachio products. See, “Twitter to the rescue: Agencies apply high-tech tools in crisis response” by Elise Castelli, Federal Times (April 06, 2009). While overall use as measured by followership remains relatively small, most of these initiatives are new and they will likely gain popularity as Twitter® becomes better known as a community alerting and information dissemination point.

While mass outbound public communication is a natural use for Twitter®, it may also serve potentially other equally useful purposes. Twitter® is not a one way conversation utility. Namely, it is a tool for information gathering and quick interactive information updating. Followers can send messages too. In fact, Twitter® was reportedly used in the aid of a Swiss Alps mountain rescue operation. As the Alpine rescue unfolded, members of a snowboarding party were sending “tweets” to friends who were, in turn, passing on information to aid in finding their location and providing updated status details regarding their condition. See, “Mountain rescue played out on Twitter; 1 dead”, Associated Press (March 3, 2009). In one the earliest celebrated cases of “Twitter to the rescue”, it was widely used during the 2007 Southern California wildfires to track and report fire movements in real time and alert people of potential oncoming danger. See, “California Fire Followers Set Twitter Ablaze” by Michael Calore, Wired Blog Network (Oct. 2007).

In this vein of emerging communications and cooperation, it is worth noting one particular Twitter micro-blog that is very interesting – twitter.com/HoustonFireDept. The Houston Fire Department is sending out incidents generated from its CAD system as “tweets” with hypertext linked mapped location information. It is quite easy to imagine extending this type of alert into an interactive web based information gathering portal through which the public can contribute information, and also follow incident updates at an incident defined level.

The above examples provide a glimpse into the potential utility that Twitter® may offer in the realm of emergency response and public safety. Imagine what thousands of eyes and typing hands can do to provide important information to public safety agencies during a large distributed, evolving crisis such as a natural disaster. Or, perhaps what a handful of people in the right place and at the right time can offer in the case of a manmade disaster or terrorist attack. In the case of Citizen Corps, 2,342 local councils have formed across that United States. These Corps are local citizen based civic emergency preparedness organizations designed to assist local communities with civilian emergency planning and response. Twitter might play a constructive role in providing quick updates to diverse members. Or, consider how Twitter® or a secure private Twitter-like service might be used for NIMS Incident Command System (ICS) communications functions for providing quick updates from branches, divisions, tactical units or groups. Each of these applications presents potentially useful benefits. Like any good communication tool, it has the ability to act as a force multiplier by increasing information flow and raising real time situational awareness.

As is the case with many new communications tools, functional or pseudo-functional overlap with legacy systems is not uncommon. In the area of crisis information management, for example, there are a variety of web-enabled emergency operations center solutions which purport to offer real time information sharing for emergency management personnel. These solutions range from highly sophisticated environments with extensive integrated data views to rudimentary topic driven message boards, many of which purport to comply with Incident Command System (ICS) and Emergency Support Functions (ESF) standards. However, in reality, ICS and ESF are not technology standards or explicit functional requirements inasmuch as they are organizational and process frameworks with rules meant to rationalize and organize command and control, drive coordinated planning, foster continuing training, prompt exercises, assess results, and make improvements, all within a uniformly understandable and scalable way. In this regard, any system claiming or asserting ICS standards compliance (and by implication “completeness or suitability”) misses the mark in that the very essence of the thing they purport to meet contemplates a dynamic and continuing cycle of evolutionary improvement towards an increasingly better state of active preparedness. Improving, replacing and supplementing legacy communications systems and methods to advance efficient, cohesive, real time coordinated communications and information sharing is a core principle of NIMS and ICS. So, the mere fact the there may exist other modalities of communication in use providing “similar” functions should not necessarily preclude an examination as to how the overall environment can be improved by cohesively integrating or introducing new modes of communication such as micro-blogging capabilities.

Of course, integrating Twitter® or a Twitter-like capability into a public safety or emergency management environment raises unique suitability considerations based upon its use context. These considerations include security and privacy, user identity management and authentication, evidence preservation and chain of custody, and practical possession and control matters. In the context of public alerting, for example, maintaining a permanent record of the alert content, its time of dissemination and the party who sent it are all important. These records must be maintained in a secure and controlled environment to ensure their integrity in the event of subsequent litigation or an investigation. Moreover, as with any alerting mechanism, the actual credentials and permissions of the person authorized to send alerts must be carefully managed. While external threats and breaches from hackers may permit unauthorized users to send out fraudulent alerting messages, unauthorized messaging can also occur from within the agency through lax credentials access and control procedures.

Finally, as with any official public communications outlet, an integrated administrative review and approval workflow component is important to ensure that appropriate quality control standards, legal review requirements, and internal policies are followed, obtained and recorded. In the case where Twitter® might be used to collect information from the public, concerns are present that are similar to those that arise in the context of tip lines and other inbound telephone calls. Chiefly among them is being able to process potentially large volumes of information that may be submitted as well as being able to determine its relevancy, verify or assess its likely accuracy and truthfulness, and assess its actionable value in a timely manner. Finally, in the case of internal communications for crisis or emergency management purposes, a broad array of considerations are at play, including the security, authentication and records management issues previously described along with evidentiary and chain of custody matters associated with communications logs. Finally, the use of third party systems where the agency is not in possession and control of its communications data records also leaves the information vulnerable to legal discovery. If information resides in another party’s possession, the agency may have no or limited opportunity to contest or challenge a demand for disclosure, particularly since the party in possession of the data may have no duty to notify the agency, or worse yet, voluntarily chooses to disclose data without due consideration for the agency’s rights or concerns.

Finally, beyond these particular considerations, there are more rudimentary issues that must be addressed when dealing with public safety communications, namely reliability. As this article was being written, Twitter served up a page at 9:39PM EST on April 19, 2009 stating “Twitter is over capacity. Please Wait and try again”. In the public safety, those aren’t welcome words.

Notwithstanding the above, it is reasonable to expect the use of Twitter® to continue to rapidly grow within the public safety and emergency management space primarily as an adjunct to existing mass alerting modalities. It is further likely that Twitter® can and will be used by innovative agencies as a means to enhance information gathering through public participation - in essence enabling “virtual neighborhood watch” capabilities. However, it is very unlikely Twitter® could be adopted for any internal public safety and emergency management communications use because of the additional security, data integrity assurance, information management and control, and most importantly, reliability needs. Instead, it is more likely that private, in-house “Twitter-like” communications utilities will be created that are more suitable for public safety needs that could augment existing internal communications and information management environments, particularly where resources and assets are geographically diverse. But even within a more robust private framework, the public Twitter® environment still can play an important role as a public interface through integration and the application of appropriate information vetting and verification filters to allow relevant two-way information sharing.

Do these things like Twitter® matter? You bet. For someone, somewhere it just might make all the difference in the world. Here is one of my favorite tweets which came from the Oregon Office of Emergency Management (twitter.com/BailyJN):

“Here's the scenario - You are at work, kids at school. Big earthquake. No phone service or power. Roads closed. Tell me your plan.” 3:46 PM Mar 13th

Post Script: As this article was completed and waiting for general publishing, Microsoft announced a beta release of Vine, a new Twitter-like service for emergency communications. As they say “timing is everything” but then again there is a certain obviousness for the reasons described above. See,

The author is not affiliated with Twitter, and the assessments and characterizations made within the article reflect the author’s opinions and do not constitute any endorsement of Twitter or its suitability or reliability for public safety or any other use. Neither the author nor publisher of this article asserts any claim or rights in or to the trade names or marks of Twitter, Inc., all of which are expressly reserved to Twitter.

You can follow the Author’s updates and commentary on Twitter at “@Interoperable”.


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  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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