Robert Mayer

Emergency 911 Service and the Role of Social Media

Earlier this week I participated in a roundtable discussion at the FCC where issues related to situational awareness of 911 service outages were discussed among a diverse group of interested stakeholders.


The discussion included representatives across the public safety community including service providers, 911 vendors, consumer advocates, and the public safety organizations (PSAPs) that take incoming calls from the public and route them to the appropriate emergency service responders. Given that much of the discussion around notifications focused on the use of social media as a viable communications tool, the inclusion of a Facebook representative on the roundtable was both appropriate and reassuring.


There are currently over 6,000 PSAPs that operate largely as independent entities at the local, and in a few cases, state-wide level. This structure has historically created challenges to organize and implement programs at the national level, since neither the FCC or any other federal entity has direct oversight of these localized entities.  The FCC however does play an important role in organizing and developing voluntary best practices (CSRIC Best Practices Search Tool) that service providers and PSAPs can employ.


For example, in the Communications Security Reliability and Interoperability Council (CSRIC) recommendation 9-7-3201, members of the federal advisory committee suggested that service providers and  public safety organizations should jointly develop a response plan to notify the public. That effort was focused on the broadcast media to communicate alternative means of contacting emergency services during a 911 outage.


In instances where the normal mode of communication between a citizen who makes a 911 call to the PSAP is disrupted, it is vital that local authorities advise the public of an alternative means to communicate with emergency responders.


USTelecom and some of our members spoke during the panel about the considerable efforts they have made over many years to improve the planning processes related to service disruptions and communications with impacted entities and customers.


Since those recommendations to the CSRIC were submitted, the way information spreads has changed dramatically thanks to widely available broadband and social media networks.


These developments have led to fundamental changes in how public safety organizations think about their role in communicating to the public when service disruptions occur. In addition to using traditional methods, such as alerts to local media and mass notification tools that can alert registered individuals (sometimes referred to as “reverse 911”), it is now common for public safety organizations to use social media.


The use of social media extends beyond just communicating with customers. Karima Holmes heads the Office of Unified Communications, a 400-person operation serving Washington D.C. She explained that Twitter is now the first line of communications among government officials when considering event coordination responsibilities that impact 911. That could take the form of asking senior government officials to direct their Twitter followers to check a single account for updates on 911 outages.


It is very clear that the role of social media in this area will only expand as more and more people rely on these services to communicate during critical events.


While social media can help when it comes to customer notifications, some important caveats were also raised during the workshop.  Not all citizens utilize social media which is why continued reliance on traditional communications channels is a necessity.  We also know that social media can be a venue for misinformation, so it is important that any information shared via official accounts is accurate and authoritative.


As I indicated to the panel, communicating outage information to affected parties ultimately comes down to a rather straight-forward formula: getting the right information to the right people at the right time. There will never be a one-size fits all solution given the diversity of public safety organizations and the communications choices that citizens now have.


The FCC can provide an important service in bringing together stakeholders in this evolving ecosystem to study the impact social media can have on enhancing notification activities. Understanding that the broadband revolution and social media have touched every aspect of our society and the public safety sector is at the forefront of this discussion.