I glanced at my Twitter feed the other day and did a double take. Flame was erupting from a house in Oakland in a photograph tweeted by OaklandFireLive. Another photo showed firefighters on the roof of the building, smoke billowing around them.
For a moment it looked like a new social media extreme: firefighters pausing in the midst of a conflagration to update the world on their status.
— Oakland Firefighters (@OaklandFireLive) March 11, 2013
But Chief of Staff Cynthia Perkins assured me that Oakland firefighters are definitely not thumbing their iPhones while the city burns: "The Oakland Fire Department doesn't have a Twitter account. And I can't imagine that it was an actual line firefighter who was tweeting."
Looking further, I found that it wasn't. At least not exactly. But the incident illustrates the complex issues that are popping up as social media finds its way into the hands of emergency responders.
The initial tweet came from what firefighters call a "fire buff," Chuck Garcia, president of the International Association of Firefighters, Local 55, told me. That's a civilian who listens to radio scanners and then dashes out to the scene of the emergency to snap photos.
The fire buff apparently sent the photo to a firefighter sitting in a firehouse somewhere else in Oakland, who tweeted it out on the union's account.
"We thought maybe we could get our message out to people who didn't know what we do," Garcia said. "We want them to know we're working hard to protect them and their property, and we're very good at what we do."
So what's next? Will the California Highway Patrol tweet about whom it stops along the highway?
The registration is paid.Sgt. Japay warns that a current year tab is still needed & to make a DMV appointment on line twitter.com/CHP_GoldenGate…
— CHP Golden Gate (@CHP_GoldenGate) March 19, 2013
The tweet was part of a virtual ride-along that the Golden Gate division's spokeswoman, Diana McDermott, organized, sending out tweets that portrayed a few hours on the job for a patrol officer.
"I wanted people to know that we are out working on our beats even when we're not visible to them," McDermott said.
She has found Twitter useful for a lot of other things as well. "It's a quick medium to get information out immediately, and an important part of what we do for education," she said.
For example, on Aug. 6, 2012, when a fire at the Chevron refinery in Richmond sent a column of smoke into the air, McDermott tweeted that people who were planning to drive through the area should keep their windows shut. She also has tweeted about laws concerning car seats and about how to properly tie a kayak to your car.
Social media can even help solve crimes. San Francisco police were able to recover a bicycle stolen from a child with special needs by posting a photo on the department's Facebook page. Someone recognized it and called the police with the location.
"We know that some people don't get their news from TV or radio," said Wilson Ng, who manages social media for the SFPD. "Social media is where they get their news."
In a more dramatic example, Clark Regional Emergency Services in Vancouver, Wash., mobilized citizens to find an elderly woman who had disappeared. More than 20,000 people shared information until finally someone discovered she had fainted behind a bush.
Social media are potentially valuable in a natural disaster, said Clark Emergency Manager Cheryl Bledsoe, who set up a website on the topic of social media in her profession.
Not only can emergency agencies get alerts out quickly, they can also collect information about how crises are unfolding. "We can highlight problems and focus on them," she said. "For example, in a flood we can find out that people need sandbags in a particular area. It's all about gauging sentiment. If the public is really concerned about something, then we know we need to get more information out."
But use of social media comes with risks as well, Bledsoe said.
- It takes time to keep Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other accounts up to date, time that could be used for other crucial emergency services.
- A photo could reveal the identity of someone being arrested or having a medical emergency, potentially violating their privacy. (In the ride-along, McDermott was careful not to tweet an image showing the drivers' faces or license plates.)
- There are legal ramifications to any statement that government employees make.
And there's a risk of publicly disclosing sensitive information. That problem cropped up in 2011 during the Occupy demonstrations when protesters gleaned strategic information about the police officers trying to control them.
"There were incidents where officers were Facebooking or tweeting about their plans," said Officer Albie Esparza of the San Francisco Police Department.
The officers were just trying to communicate with their friends and family about work hours, SFPD Police Chief Greg Suhr told KTVU. The department planned to create a social media policy, according to that report.
But so far it only has general guidelines, Esparza said. "The wisest thing is not to post anything about the department."
Rank-and-file emergency responders may have their reasons to talk about their work online, however. For example, Garcia of the Oakland Fire Department said his union has successfully used a blog to get out its message about negotiations on its retirement plan.
But he, too, has experienced a downside to social media: a blog with crude criticisms of him and other Oakland firefighters is the first hit that pops up if you Google him. Garcia and others have tried without success to get the site taken down.
"That's the only thing I don't like," he said. "It helps you, but it definitely can hurt you."