Social media for the emergency services: a winner or a weakness for your organisation?

Social media use within the emergency services has grown significantly in recent years, with the majority of services using at least one social media network. As an example, the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) has developed an extensive range of social media channels for engaging the public. The main Twitter feed @metpoliceuk now has more than 1.2 million followers, whilst the MPS is currently ensuring that every ward has a dedicated feed of hyper-local news and information incorporated in the Local Life pages of the website. The MPS is also present on Facebook, YouTube and Instagram.

Few would argue that social media can be a valuable tool in helping disseminate information quickly and effectively, but there are some downsides. In this post we’ll take a look at how social media is being used by the emergency services and also at some of the pros and cons of its use.

How is Social Media being used by the Emergency Services?

  • Publicity – Reporting successful interventions, arrests, charitable acts and notable events such as new recruits, special awards and work in the community
  • Awareness – Local or national campaigns to raise awareness throughout the year about topics such as safety, changes to laws, crime prevention or terrorism
  • Warnings – Alerting the public to traffic accidents, emergency incidents, serious weather conditions, fraud alerts etc.
  • Appeals – Requesting the help from the public in seeking a criminal suspect or missing person
  • Engagement - building broader engagement with the public around a specific issue or intervention such as youth activity, diversity, local issues or the introduction of new equipment such as body worn video, tasers or spit hoods.
  • Background Checks – Using social media to help perform suitability checks for licences or recruitment.
  • Detecting and Solving Crime - Social media evidence can be a valuable addition to an investigation, revealing the kind of information that, years ago, would have been difficult, if not impossible, to find.
  • Reporting Crime - Merseyside Police introduced a dedicated social media desk to allow people to report non-urgent crimes or get advice online in February 2018 following a six month pilot. Others are sure to follow.

Social media for the emergency services - the advantages

Ease of Access

In 2017, 90% of the UK households had internet access, an increase from 89% in 2016 and 57% in 2006. The use of the internet for social networking accounted to 66% of total internet activities in 2017 and above 83% for people aged 16-44 (ONS, 2017). Smartphone uptake in the UK has now eclipsed laptop penetration, with 85% of citizens using smartphones (Deloitte).

According to Statista, there are 44m active social media users in the UK, of which 38m access social media via a mobile device.

From these statistics, it shows that using online tools to quickly communicate with a large number citizens should be part of the communications strategy of the emergency services.

Timeliness

Being able to communicate in a timely way, particularly when every second could save lives, is where social media can come into its own.

The recent terror attacks in London and Manchester, as well as the fire at Grenfell, were recent incidents of scale to occur in the UK in an age where social media played such an important role in communications and in the shaping of public responses. Social media proved invaluable in a rapidly-changing situation during both incidents in enabling information to be rapidly shared with the public and with local organisations. Twitter particularly offered a single point of rapid contact and enabled individual public enquiries to be triaged and responded to. Social media also proved invaluable in feeding on-the-ground reports from local people into the emergency response.

Tracing missing or vulnerable people using social media is shown to be highly effective. An estimated 135,382 individuals were reported missing in England and Wales in 2015/16. The majority of people who go missing will return or be found within 24 hours (79%), only 2% will remain missing for longer than a week.

Community Engagement

Using social media can serve a number of purposes in engagement with the wider community:

  • Easy to target specific audiences. People with shared interests tend to be easy to reach via social media, by connecting to existing communities in this way you can hope to target very specific groups.
  • Fostering interaction. Social media, by its very nature lends itself very well to interaction and audience participation. You can get people to do the leg work for you - if you grab their attention, or set them a challenge, they will share and interact with your content or message.
  • Running targeted or wide-spread participation campaigns. Social media can offer more direct, real-time, networked ways to collaborate, and is becoming an important component of emergency services initiatives.
  • Promoting projects and events. Social media can be used to develop networks that can help to quickly and effectively promote projects and events to key target audiences.

Safety

The emergency services community are already largely effective in promoting safety via key campaigns throughout the year. London Fire Brigade has been staging an effective campaign to encourage a single, publicly accessible register of product recalls.

Similarly Fire and Rescue services across the UK have been promoting drowning prevention and water safety in April co-ordinated by the Chief Fire Officers Association.

Insight

Social media can be an invaluable source of information for emergency services when managing major disruptive events, recent research from Cardiff University has shown.

An analysis of data taken from the London riots in 2011 showed that computer systems could automatically scan through Twitter and detect serious incidents, such as shops being broken in to and cars being set alight, before they were reported to the Metropolitan Police Service.

What are the cons? 

Abuse

Unfortunately any content posted online is open to scrutiny, comment and sharing and sometimes that may lead to online abuse. Most social networks do offer a level of control so that abusive individuals can be blocked, reported or removed.

Some emergency services have taken this one step further. In a bid to stop offensive and threatening language from appearing on their social media pages, Humberside Police are now threatening users with a lifetime ban.

The force published a "Facebook Community Code of Conduct" that lists the infractions that can result in a lifetime ban from their social media pages, meaning that they may ban a user for life "without notice" from commenting on any of their social media pages.

Accessibility

There are some arguments to say that by using social media, the emergency services are excluding parts of the community such as the elderly, disabled or poor. Whilst this should always be a consideration for emergency services as part of their overall communications mix, the shift towards consuming information online has shifted significantly over the last decade.

The findings from Ofcom’s annual Adults’ Media Use and Attitudes report in 2017 shows striking growth in older people’s use of technology between 2015 and 2016. Baby boomers aged 65-74 are increasingly connected, with four in ten (39%) using a smartphone, up 11 percentage points in a single year.

Nearly half (48%) of internet users aged 65-74 now have a social media profile. Among over 75s, the proportion with a profile has nearly doubled – from 19% to 41%. Around nine in ten (87%) social seniors aged over 65 opt for a Facebook account.

A survey carried out for the Mayor of London in 2016 demonstrated that 90% of people who were already online – the vast majority of Londoners - would consider using online policing services in the right circumstances – and this figure was consistent for older citizens (see below)

Human Error, Misjudgement and Lack of Knowledge

Social media is a great tool. However, like any tool, people must learn how to use it correctly so it doesn’t harm the reputation of the emergency services.

Most services offer training to their people and offer clear guidelines as to the do’s and don’ts of using social media both in public and private life. There are also a large number of resources online.

As an example the Met Police have produced a great resource: Top 10 Examples of Police Social Media - and why they work

In this post we’ve only scratched the surface of some of the key pros and cons of social media use by the emergency services, but hopefully we’ve given you food for thought. Social media is here to stay and is also fast-changing. We believe it will be a growing part of the emergency service arsenal in the future.

Find out more

Interested in using social media technology in your control room? We integrate these channels in our control room solutions. From call-taking to dispatching, we'll help you unleash the power of these new tools. If you'd like to know more, get in touch with us at hello@apdcomms.com or by calling 01482 808300.

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