If 911 Can’t Help, Maybe 140 (Characters) Can

August 13, 2010

The American Red Cross recently released new data indicating that many Internet users would turn to social media sites like Twitter and Facebook if they could not access emergency help via 911.

The American Red Cross recently released new data indicating that many Internet users would turn to social media sites like Twitter and Facebook if they could not access emergency help via 911.

Of 1,058 adults surveyed, one in five would try to contact emergency responders through digital means such as e-mail, websites or social media, according to the organization’s research. Furthermore, if Internet users knew of someone else who needed help, 44 percent would seek assistance in their social network, with 35 percent saying they’d utilize their Facebook “friends” and 28 percent indicating they would create a 140-character post on Twitter to reach responders.

Now we’ve seen the impact that technology can have with Hurricane Katrina – in locating relatives spread throughout the Gulf region – and following the earthquake in Haiti – where people used social media to not only report damage but to also organize volunteers to the hardest hit areas.

Technology has its uses – no doubt. It is a powerful tool to connect individuals worldwide at the click of a button. Recent examples of emergency help and crime reporting using Twitter abound, but also has its limits.

Red Cross President Gail McGovern even notes that “the first and best choice” in an emergency is 911, but that “people will be persistent in their quest for help” and turn to social media, she said in a statement.

This is the part of the research I find the most interesting: 69 percent said emergency responders should be monitoring social media sites in order to dispatch aid. Seventy-four percent of the respondents expected help to come less than an hour after their Twitter “tweet” or a posting on Facebook.

A quick Twitter search of the keyword “help,” turned up everything from pleas to aid charities to references to The Beatles album from 1965. So what are emergency responders supposed to monitor according to the 69 percent of the Red Cross’s respondents? No one wants emergency personnel reacting to a “hoax tweet” either, I would think.

Furthermore, an expectation of aid in less than an hour is a little lofty, I believe.

I am in full support of social media as a tool to change the way we live, but let’s remember it, like most technology, has its limits. When 911, for whatever reason, does not work, I would be the first to try literally anything to get help for myself or someone else, but as a secondary measure, I would expect a little less than a miracle.

Hoping someone is on the other end of a Tweet or Facebook post is a lot different than operators sitting at a call station.

What do you think? Have you used social media to access emergency aid? As a physician, have you been on the other end of a Tweet or post for help? Share your thoughts below.