How Social Media Challenges First Responders, PSAPs During Disasters

During recent disasters such as the 2017 U.S. hurricanes and wildfires, public-safety answering points (PSAPs) in the disaster areas received a flood of nontraditional requests for emergency service over social media.

During Hurricane Harvey, the wait time for answering a call to Houston’s PSAP climbed as high as 3.5 hours, said Michael Walter, public information officer (PIO) for Houston’s Office of Emergency Management.

“You can imagine that frustrated a lot of people, so they reached out to us in a variety of ways,” Walter said during a virtual town hall on social media held by the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC).

Citizens are using social media to reach out for 9-1-1 help both when 9-1-1 services are down and when they are up and running. Those nontraditional calls for help pose challenges for public-safety agencies that do not have the manpower to constantly monitor social media or the policies to address such nontraditional calls, said Barry Luke, deputy executive director, NPSTC.

Additionally, sometimes citizens groups will monitor social media for requests for help and, in some cases, respond to help those people, which can cause confusion about the emergency response.

“Previously, I would have said you could never set a precedent by responding to a request for help on social media,” said Walter. “But I could never have imagined the amount of nontraditional calls for help that came in.”

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