If someone tweets for help, and help doesn’t come, is the local public safety agency liable?

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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.

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7 responses to “If someone tweets for help, and help doesn’t come, is the local public safety agency liable?

  1. Not sure some of the folks who expect, or at least want, Twitter to serve as 9-1-1 really understand what 9-1-1 does. A 9-1-1 call is more than just a request for service that government is obliged to satisfy. It’s a conversation between the caller and a trained intermediary, a dispatcher or “call taker,” who works with the caller to clarify their situation and needs, and then attempts to match available resources to the caller’s requirements.

    Handling a 9-1-1 frequently involves translation, if not between languages than at least between the caller’s idiom and the vocabulary of public safety. Clarifying the location of the problem (which may not be the same as the location of the caller) can be a significant challenge. Sometimes the 9-1-1 call-taker will provide information back to the caller… CPR instructions and so on… although they prefer not to get involved in time-consuming “just in time training” unless the situation is immediately life-threatening because that keeps them from taking other calls. It’s a complicated and highly interactive process, not just a matter of tweeting “help!”

    And there are constant demands from interest groups for 9-1-1 service to be customized to fit their particular needs and preferences. Adapting 9-1-1 to better support multiple languages and sensory disabilities are, I’m afraid, in the queue ahead of folks who’d like to be able to 9-1-Tweet.

    • I think the concern comes from people who understand that sometimes you can’t get enough signal to make a call, but will have enough of a signal to send a text message. If you can’t get through to 911 then all of those great services won’t be available, no matter how trained the “call taker”.

  2. This is a really valid question that need to be addressed by any agency prior to getting on social media.

    Personally I think the technology is not quite there yet to facilitate social media as a add on to 9-1-1 unless you pay someone to monitor it 24/7. (which may not be fiscally smart)

    What really needs to be done is posting your agency’s “terms of use” to users on the actual social media site or by linking them from your home page to your social media sites.

    For example in Facebook on the info tab you should note “this page not monitored 24/7, any questions may take 1-2 business days to be addressed if this is an emergency call 9-1-1 immediately”. On top of that, on a Facebook page you can put “If you have an emergency call 9-1-1” in the info box under you picture. For twitter in the website section of your profile, link it directly to your terms posted to your home website. This also helps shows you are the actual person you say you are and further authenticates your social media use.

  3. Public agencies host, certify and/or supervise their 9-1-1 system (which is comprised of a lot more than a call-taker). They can re-route, monitor and identify in real time when their system needs maintenance … and they have the people and contractual mechanisms in place to insure maintenance and restoration takes place at mission critical speed.

    None of these criteria are present or available to the agency in social media. While Twitter, Facebook, etc. are helpful tools in a relationship between an agency and its citizens – it would be perilous at best to consider it a viable means to communicate emergencies (to or from the agency). Does this seem too farfetched?: “Due to unforeseen server traffic regarding the starlet’s release from jail and the resulting ‘fail whale’ being out of our control, we apologize for not being able to warn you of the chlorine gas cloud approaching your neighborhood.”

    The pendulum has swung too far in favor of social media of late as a reliable, all-encompassing tool. With ¾ of the public expecting their local agency to rush to their side when they post to Twitter, that underscores that the public is the only one doing the talking, ergo, the only one setting expectations. With no moderation, the public expects a 100% solution on their terms, which is not reasonable or practical. As mentioned by other posters, an agency that establishes clear expectations of what they will and won’t do balances that conversation and helps pull the pendulum back toward the middle.

    Nothing will keep one from getting sued, but establishing expectations through mindful dialogue will sure strengthen one’s position.

  4. I think at this time social media in the EM world is best left to awareness and notification, not response.

    • Daniel – what do you think is holding EM back from using SM for response (re: SM for EM best left to awareness and notification) – do you think it’s possible? and if so, what needs to change for this to happen?

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