Post by: Kim Stephens
Recently I talked to my local emergency management agency about incorporating social media in their communications strategy. One concern arose that stumped me: if an agency using social media receives a report of an injury through Twitter, Facebook or any platform, are they liable if they don’t respond?
Some people would ask: Why wouldn’t a response agency be able to react? Although most emergency response organizations have 24 hour operations, at the local level in particular often only one person is responsible for monitoring social media communications and that person clearly would not working ’round the clock. Larger organizations have Public Information Officers on duty 24/7, but small organizations do not have that luxury.
This limited capability is usually not what the public imagines, as we saw with the American Red Cross survey completed this past Aug. (See earlier post on this topic.) The finding that most concerns me here is:
…the survey respondents expected quick response to an online appeal for help—74 percent expected help to come less than an hour after their tweet or Facebook post. (American Red Cross)
This expectation has been of concern to me, so I raised the matter with some outside experts. The essential questions deal with responsibility and liability. Specifically, how can response organizations engage in social media yet not raise public expectations that it will be monitored 24/7 and replace 911, and not expose the agency to future lawsuits?
From the experts I talked to, here are some answers. According to Mike Ellis of Code Red at ECN, and confirmed by Claire Reiss of the Public Entity Risk Institute, you simply make it clear on your social media site, in a prominent place, that you do not accept emergency notifications. Similar to the message you might hear if you call your Dr.’s office “If this is an emergency hang up and dial 911.” You should also make it clear that the social media sites are not monitored 24/7 if that is the case. There is one caveat, however, if someone sends a tweet or a post indicating an injury and your organizations responds to that communication, then the clock will start. If you tell the person help is on the way, it should be on the way in real-time since an expectation will have been established.
This does not mean, however, that any injury a person asks you about has to be ignored. An example comes from the LAFD’s use of social media. In one case a citizen sent a tweet to the LAFD saying that he/she had burned a hand. The PIO, Bryan Humphrey, told the person some general first aid info (e.g. place burn under cold water) but also said to call 911 if the injury was bad enough. Instead of just telling them to “call 911″ he engaged the person, but also directed them to the proper call center if it was necessary.
This, however, doesn’t even address what could happen if the person received a busy signal from 911 and then turned to the agency’s Facebook page for help. That is another matter for another posting.
My personal opinion is that response organizations may, in the future, have to hire more people expressly for the job of monitoring social media. Could the new hires be part of the 911 center, since that is already activated 24/7? In this era of decreasing budgets that probably is not likely to happen. Another option is to recruit trained volunteers, via the Citizen Corps or CERT programs at the local level, especially for use during major crises or disasters. This is an option we will explore in a future posting.
- Tweeting for Help: Red Cross Explores Social Media (socialtimes.com)