(TNS) — The city of Aberdeen, S.D., this month issue its first public safety alert by text message.
The process wasn’t perfect, though there’s no faulting the effort in spite of a few hiccups.
The text message was sent out the morning of Feb. 6 after an explosion and house fire at 507 N. Second St. that ultimately destroyed the uninhabited home. The messaged noted that there was a “gas explosion.”
It still hasn’t been determined whether that was actually the case; fire officials are still investigating. But at least the public knew to steer clear of the area — or at least reasonable residents who didn’t use the alert as an excuse to go see what happened stayed away to let first responders work.
A couple of things, though:
• While it might eventually be determined that the fire and explosion were the result of leaking gas, that information shouldn’t have been included in the text if it hadn’t been verified.
• And, maybe of more concern, the message didn’t say who sent it.
Aberdeen police Chief Dave McNeil said first responder to the scene of the house fire noticed characteristics of a gas explosion. So that’s where that bit of information was garnered before the text was sent.
And City Manager Lynn Lander acknowledged that the message should have included who sent it. That will be corrected in the future, he said.
The city’s first public safety text alert got the job done even if there need to be improvements in the future.
Some folks around town wondered why they didn’t get the message. That answer is simpler: They haven’t signed up for the service.
The city offers a wide variety of notifications — via email or text alert — on its website, aberdeen.sd.us. From there, along the left side of the page, look for the “Notify Me” icon and click on it. That takes you to the page on which you can sign up for alerts. Public safety and slow removal seem the most important, though options include everything from the library to bid notices to Lee Park Golf Course.
So the city is adapting concerning how it communicates with the public.
Now it’s time to take the next step.
Lander said that while he’ll continue to monitor other ways in which the city can interact with the public, he’s not interested in starting a Facebook page or Twitter account.
That is a missed opportunity in an increasingly connected world.
It’s true, of course, that not everybody has a smartphone or spends countless hours on social media, as Lander noted. And it’s also true that monitoring social media takes time — time that city employees may not have, or want to make a priority right now. But it might be time to reconsider that philosophy.
Social media cannot be ignored. It is unlikely local students will ever sign-up for city alerts (not yet, anyway), but they, too, need to be informed during emergencies. Social media — especially Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat — are more organic, and likely to be seen by more people than the city’s direct lists.
If the information is important, public officials must make an effort to be in the places where the largest audiences hang out. Emergency are not just for those who joined the club.
And, we know that a unit of city government already has had success using social media.
The Aberdeen Police Department has an active Facebook account, with nearly 17,000 followers. Officers use it to successfully garner tips all of the time. Police also have a Twitter account, though it’s generally pretty quiet.
Local sheriff’s offices and a few emergency management directors also issue information via Facebook, be it a warning about upcoming bad weather, a recap of a crime or some other incident, or details about somebody who is wanted.
We’re happy that the city offers texts and emails as a way to keep the public informed. But in this age, social media is the logical next step. It’s past due.
— American News Editorial Board
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