The 3 Big Questions About Using Social Media Tools in Emergencies

There’s no doubt your head is spinning because your boss, city council, board of supervisors, mayor, etc wants you to figure out whether or not you should be Tweeting on Twitter or connecting with the community on Facebook.  You’re the expert communicator with all the answers, right?  Yikes!  If you like many folks, you’re still just learning about the various new ways to connect with your community beyond the tried-and-true newsletter, press release or periodic community meeting.

It’s hard to ignore. A whole new information sharing environment is upon us and people are expecting information quickly and in many new forms – especially during emergencies:

  • Text messages on their cell phone
  • E-mails sent to their personal and work accounts
  • Twitter updates
  • Custom iPhone and Blackberry applications (devices known as PDA’s)
  • Immediate information accessible on a web page

And, they want it on ALL those platforms IN ADDITION to the simple “Reverse 911” phone message or knock on their front door when a crisis strikes.

There’s a lot to be said about what we’re seeing happening with Twitter and the political uprising in Iran.  Who knew that this simple little application would become the most vital communication tool for a virtual revolution?  You can also give credit to Google for providing some easy-to-use, free mapping technology that helped people during California’s worst wildfires in 2007 and 2008 (I know because I was building Google Maps right on my laptop from home).  But there’s still lingering questions for those of us folks that need to reassure the public that we have “official” information.

The Three Big Questions We Need Answered

Even though there’s a lot of neat stuff out there, the big three questions remain:

  1. Is it totally free? (No hidden tricks that force you into paying for a “Pro” account down the road)
  2. How much control do I really have with the popular free social media tools? Are embarrassing ads like “Viagra” going to pop up somewhere in my official messages? (Yep, you guessed it, already happened to me during a live web stream test of a press conference.)
  3. Is it reliable enough to use in an emergency and going to be around for a while? (ie, This is not a “startup” company that may morph into something else or disappear from the web on a moments notice.)

** Okay, so there’s more than three questions… but you still want answers to all of those questions!

A Potential Answer

There’s a new service that seems to have a lot of promise called Nixle.  According to their website, Nixle’s Municipal Wire is the first standardized, secure, and certified communication platform for local police departments, municipalities, and their agencies to communicate important, neighborhood-level information to the residents of their communities. Nixle’s Municipal Wire is available at no cost to residents or police departments, and uses the same compelling model as social applications, such as Twitter and Facebook, while adding the security that is critical to ensure information received by users is Trusted and Accurate. Residents receive all information immediately by text message, email and web.

This service was build exclusively for:

  • Municipal governments and their agencies
  • Local police departments & law enforcement agencies
  • Fire departments & local emergency service agencies
  • County, State and Federal agencies with a need to communicate neighborhood-level information.

Here are some case studies that might help you understand how Nixle is hoping to change the dynamic of public information, warning and communications.

Their “team” also includes an impressive cadre of very experienced folks in the public sector – namely Craig Mitnick, the co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of the company.  He’s a former attorney and government prosecutor, a law enforcement academy instructor and worked in the news industry.

To be up front, I haven’t fully tested or played with this system yet, but by the looks of what is happening in other communities like my home town of Modesto and their police department, this might be a very promising comprehensive “solution” to reaching today’s digitally-connected community members.  It seems to answer our first two questions and the third is yet to be answered.

3 comments… add one
  • Patrick Young Jun 19, 2009, 9:15 am

    Fire and Police agencies in the City and County of Napa (CA) use Nixle with great results. We have been able to provide real time alerts about fire and police situations and not only send it to our Nixle Followers; but also Twitter followers, with the click of the enter key. Nixle provides an option to send the official message to your Twitter account. The local news media outlets follow our Nixle and Twitter accounts and within a couple of minutes they have also sent out “Tweets” about the event and have updated their website. Minutes after an event has started, people have the information available to them to help make informed decisions about their safety. This can all be done from my smart phone, and sometimes before I leave the office to go to the command post!

  • Kelly Jun 19, 2009, 10:11 am

    Thanks Patrick! That’s great information and it sounds like you’ve found it to be convenient. I’m going to try it on a state level (somehow) and see how it might work for us!

  • Patrick Young Jun 19, 2009, 10:21 am

    Please let me know if I can be of any assistance!

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