During emergency response, the ability to access information in a timely manner can be critical for survival. Recent incidents with active shooters have underscored the importance of relaying accurate information quickly, and first responders are beginning to leverage these technologies more frequently.

Social media is a necessary investment
More than half of all Americans have a profile on at least one social networking site, making social media an effective means of reaching the masses. 55 percent of Americans ages 45 to 54 are plugged into these systems, and the fastest-growing demographic on sites such as Twitter is people ages 55 to 64. Law enforcement agencies recognize the reach of these technologies and are making an effort to integrate them into emergency response.

“At the sheriff’s office, we firmly believe in spreading the word through social media,” Sgt. Kurtis Stenderup of the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office, told NBC Bay Area. “It’s the most efficient way to communicate with the largest amount of people in the shortest amount of time.”

The general public agrees. A survey by Accenture found that most people want to support the police and help prevent crime, but only 16 percent feel they are well-informed about what to do. Approximately 72 percent of the 1,298 respondents believe that digital sites can help law enforcement investigate and catch criminals, while 53 percent believe the use of social media can improve police services.

After taking some flak for prior use of Twitter, the New York Police Department has launched a new pilot program intended to forge closer connections with neighborhoods. Commanders from five precincts—including Bushwick, Harlem, and Forest Hills—will be in charge of new Twitter accounts, with department guidelines still being developed. If successful, the NYPD Commissioner will roll out accounts for all precincts. The program will benefit from the strengths and mistakes of a rogue account run by Deputy Inspector Jeffrey Schiff, who now commands the 106th precinct. Schiff used the account to provide critical information about supply locations during Superstorm Sandy, but also warned followers about the release of career criminals.


First responders are training for effective social strategies
Officers are seeking ways to refine their practices to make the most of digital resources. First responders in California, for example, are trained on how to best distribute information online to support everything from natural disasters to routine criminal investigations. The training will also teach them how to assess needs by monitoring digital channels.

Once officers have this knowledge, they must apply it correctly. Because Twitter makes it easy to provide constant updates in a concise manner, that service may be the best option when information needs to flow rapidly, as is the case in an active shooter scenario. In other situations, reach of a message is more important. Departments have found that Facebook is useful for posting crime alerts and gathering tips from followers.

“Through social media, you can track how often that information is shared,” Chief Steve Robinette told the Grove City Record. “Oftentimes, we’re reaching in excess of 25,000 people.”

Mobility also contributes to the communication value of social media. Information collected from a crime or disaster scene can influence decision-making on the part of police by enhancing the intelligence available to agents. According to The Huffington Post, about 189 million Facebook users access the service only from a mobile device, putting those users in an ideal circumstance to report crime and provide a network of public surveillance.

No matter which direction information is flowing, social media opens the lines of communication between law enforcement and civilians, provided first responders know how to use the resources to their advantage. The right training will ensure officers make the most of the information they receive, employing it in a way that increases public safety and the efficiency of operations.

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