Most agencies are delving into social media but few, if any, have fully implemented plans.
In June 2009, the Gulf States Regional Center for Public Safety Innovations (GSRCPI) conducted a survey of more than 500 departments concerning the use of social media applications in their agencies. After attending numerous conferences, summits and focus groups this year, the GSRCPI has discovered that although many groups are discussing the issues, few are laying out specific plans and recommendations for implementation. As a guide, the GSRCPI has broken down the stages of public safety implementation of social media into three phases:
Phase 1: Initial Limited Implementation. This phase could best be characterized as dipping your toes into the water. This stage is comprised of deciding who will run the site, creating policies, educating internal staff and public officials, setting up the accounts (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) and deciding what information should be posted: crime stats, nonclassified BOLO alerts, Amber alerts, road closures and weather warnings. The details are too lengthy to be covered in this article, contact GSRCPI@GSRCPI.org for more information.
Phase 2: Expanded Implementation. During this phase agencies begin encouraging community involvement. At this stage, the agency will educate the community and media about the site, encourage them to join and provide input, and educate them about appropriate and inappropriate content posted on the site. Surprisingly the agencies that have been involved in these activities for some time find that this hasn’t been a major problem and that the social media outlets are extremely helpful in banning those who refuse to play by the rules. The swiftness of the community’s embrace and response to this type of communication portal will surprise most agencies. Unlike a website that’s dormant until someone chooses to visit, social media sites are proactive and aggressive, transmitting messages to the community via phone or computer as soon as something new is posted. A public safety agency that shifts to this type of communication shows that it is willing to adjust its communication approach to that which the community uses, not demanding that the community adjust to its style.
During this stage, more agency personnel are encouraged to begin posting information. Bellevue, Neb., Police Chief John Stacey said he couldn’t understand why officers would post that they were going shopping or to their kids' ballgame on their day off. But he was delighted at the response; it humanized the officers in the eyes of the public. It’s important to remember that generational differences will play an important role at this stage. While some older officers would never share their whereabouts while on or off duty, younger generations do it all the time. Again policies and education from phase one should include appropriate and inappropriate postings.
Phase 3: Full Integration — where no agency has gone before. The GSRCPI training guide, Social Media for Public Safety, discusses how social media has already changed the path of some disasters. Without fail, when government officials have chosen to embrace the information available on social network sites, response has improved. In contrast, when authorities have chosen to ignore the information available on social media sites, response has suffered and careers have been lost. The fact is that the true first responders on a scene are the victims and witnesses who are present. The media has actively courted citizens, armed with cameras and video phones, to send in their photographs and videos. It’s time that the emergency response community accesses this information for the good of public safety. People want to help, people want to be recognized for doing good deeds, and public safety as a whole has not given the community the outlet or paths to send the information. Therefore the media is the only recipient with whom they can share their news.
The GSRCPI is seeking several agencies of various sizes to join a study. These agencies would set up controlled computers in their 911 centers to accept pictures and videos, documenting how community involvement affects response. Imagine the advantage of having the information first: knowing what equipment to send, not having to send personnel to confirm that the bridge is washed out because you have a picture of it from a citizen. This study group would work on creating policies, education techniques for the community, 911 protocols, and legal issues with evidence and storage. If you would like to participate in the 911 social media test group please have your CEO send a letter on your letterhead to GSRCPI@GSRCPI.org. The GSRCPI is a nonprofit organization and there’s no cost to be a part of the test group.
The GSRCPI is conducting a follow-up to its Web 2.0 social media survey this month. If you would like to take the survey please visit the www.GSRCPI.org website on or after June 21 or send an e-mail to GSRCPI@GSRCPI.org for more information. As an incentive to any department that completes the survey, we will send you a link to three examples of social media policies.
Daphne Levenson is the director of the Gulf States Regional Center for Public Safety Innovations.