Using #socialmedia to call for an @mbulance... and other emergency/ disaster situations

One of the topics being discussed at this year’s Malaysia Social Media Week, is the use of social media in day- to- day emergency requests, as well as during major disasters. And make no mistake, emergency service providers around the world should realise that this vital topic needs to be urgently addressed. We can not delay acting upon the significant change in the way society uses different communication tools.

In the vast majority of countries, there is realistically only one way to request an ambulance— by telephone. While any risk management process will often highlight the problems associated with having a “single point of failure”, there is almost 100 percent reliance upon this one communications tool to call for help in an emergency. Now, reflect on the continued decrease in the number of land-lines being installed, added to the increased reliance on alternative communication pathways, such as WhatsApp, Skype, as well as the established social media platforms of FaceBook, Twitter and many others.

There is clear evidence that the use of social media is being effectively leveraged in times of disaster to identify, locate and respond to areas of need. As an example, Philippine emergency providers leveraged the power of Twitter during major floods. Similarly, social media was heavily utilised during the devastating 2015 South Indian (Chennai) floods. News media have used social media to gather intelligence about events, such as the 2008 Mumbai bombings and 2011 ‘Arab Spring’.

Is using social media as simple as making a phone call and using established call-taking processes? No, it isn’t. However, time has shown that large emergencies and disasters are often being reported on social media ahead of emergency services being informed of the situation. Importantly, this situation will continue to evolve to the point that the public will expect emergency providers to respond to alerts via social media.

Intelligent software is available to filter for specific hashtags and geo- location information is available through applications, such as Twitter. It is logical that the next step is working out how to deliver appropriate, respondable information to an ambulance communications centre and how it should be managed once in there.

Some technology companies have identified the current need for emergency providers to manage this additional layer of operational intelligence and are on their way to delivering workable solutions. It just hasn’t arrived quite yet. This means a massive amount of incident data and intelligence continues to go relatively unmonitored.

This is a significant and emerging industry, especially as governments realise they need to keep up with emerging crowd-sourced information and technologies. Increasingly, members of the public will expect emergency services, such as police, fire and ambulance, to monitor social media. So many questions remain: The most significant question is ‘Which social media do we monitor?’ Facebook? Twitter? Pinterest? Snapchat?

Systems and processes to support emergency requests and responses via social media all need to be developed. Moreover, organisations need to actively address these questions before newspapers, a Coroner or Disaster Review Board question why processes were not put into place earlier.


Craig Hooper is a health management consultant who specialises in emergency and pre-hospital healthcare operations. He has over 25 years industry experience; strengthening health and ambulance services in the public and private sector of 10 countries. His book "Time to Respond- Pre-hospital Leadership and Operational Management" is scheduled for release in March 2016.

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