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Twitter Launches Alert System for Emergencies

Twitter Alerts aims to get information from vetted, credible organizations to the public during an emergency.

Twitter is rolling out a new feature that will allow users to get emergency information directly from vetted, credible organizations. The system, called Twitter Alerts, will deliver tweets marked as an alert by approved organizations through the traditional timeline feed and via SMS to a user’s cellphone. In addition, users who have the Twitter app for iPhone or Android will receive a push notification with the alert information.

The new system was announced on Wednesday, Sept. 25, and mimics a similar feature that helps Japanese users find emergency Twitter accounts during times of crisis.

The alerts feature is to be used for “warnings for imminent dangers, preventive instructions, evacuation directions, urgent safety alerts, information on access to essential resources, information on critical transit and utility outages, and crowd and misinformation management.” Twitter Alerts will be indicated by an orange bell, and approved accounts show the bell  alongside the text: “In times of crisis, this account helps share critical information with Twitter Alerts. Be prepared.”

Participating U.S. organizations include the American Red Cross, all 10 FEMA regions and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as state and local agencies such as the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

According to Twitter, the feature is available to local, national and international organizations that “provide critical information to the general public.” Organizations that want to use the program can request enrollment via Twitter’s site.

Cheryl Bledsoe, emergency manager of the Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency (CRESA) in Washington state, completed the enrollment request and is waiting to hear back from Twitter to get the alerts status. She works with the county’s emergency management agency and 911 center and is interested in the new feature as a way to separate alerting information from everyday communication on the social media platform. “If there’s a way we can get that voice more verified and/or more prominent in the Twitter stream, we’d love to do that,” Bledsoe said.

CRESA has been using Twitter for five years, and Bledsoe said she has been working to get its accounts verified by the company, a feature used to establish the authenticity of “key individuals and brands.” While CRESA has not yet received the alerts designation or been verified, it uses two Twitter accounts to separate emergency alerts from nonemergency information. Modeled after the Los Angeles Fire Department’s accounts, @CRESA is used for emergency alerts and @CRESATalk is for preparedness information and emergency alerts.

Bledsoe said Twitter is looking to date and time stamp tweets made through the new alerts feature in a prominent way, which is an important feature for emergency information because a tweet’s original timestamp usually isn’t included when it is shared via retweets. “I work with a virtual operation team that helps people during emergencies, and one of our key mantras is date stamping and time stamping data on Twitter,” she said. “Particularly in fast-moving or dynamic situations, like tornadoes or hurricanes, information can be outdated within two or three minutes, and yet people will retweet it and echo it for hours.”

The Boston Police Department has been approved for the alerts program and made headlines with how it used Twitter to keep the public updated about its investigation and search for the marathon bombing suspects in April. “We’re looking to Twitter Alerts as a means to help increase visibility and accessibility of reliable, official information. This will help us support the safety of our residents,” said Lindsay Crudele, Boston’s community and social technology strategist, in Twitter’s announcement.

Twitter users can subscribe to the new feature through an approved organization’s alerts page (for example, see FEMA's).

Emergency managers and organizations tweeted about the new system:

You can now choose to receive our most critical updates directly to your phone via #TwitterAlerts. Sign up: — FEMA (@fema) September 25, 2013
Done! Now, waiting..... RT @sm4em: Twitter Alerts: Sign your agencies up #smem — Cheryl Bledsoe (@CherylBle) September 25, 2013
You can now get our most urgent updates pushed to your phone at #TwitterAlerts — American Red Cross (@RedCross) September 25, 2013
Proud to be one of the 1st fed agencies to use #TwitterAlerts. Looking 4 only our most critical tweets? Click here: — US Dept of Interior (@Interior) September 25, 2013

This article was updated on Sept. 26.