Social media brings new capacities and liabilities to crises

New information channels are forcing emergency responders to be more transparent about their operations.

Rapid-fire Tweets and smartphone photos can be a boon to emergency responders trying to see through the fog of an unfolding crisis, but they also can divert responders with misinformation and potentially create liability issues, experts said Tuesday.

Emergency responders whose information was once limited to phone calls coming into 911 can now monitor real-time posts about which streets were worst hit in a tornado and collect photos of an accident scene while they're still miles away, Charlottesville, Va., Fire Department Chief Charles Werner said at the panel discussion hosted by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

But that information is dispersed across Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and other social media sites and it's much more difficult to separate useful information from useless noise, he said.

Former Wyoming Gov. Jim Geringer, now director of policy at the Environmental Systems Research Institute, joked that a Twitter search on Hurricane Irene, which recently hit the East Coast, could include photos and Tweets from before, during and after the storm as well as information about "some other Irene."

There's also the issue of new social media sites coming online every day much more quickly than the federal government can keep up with them, let alone state and local emergency responders.

Werner suggested the federal government ask existing social media companies to create a unified portal for emergency responders that would collect and sift through information about an unfolding event from different sites. That portal could become standard issue for new social media companies entering the market, he said.

A concern among some is that social media conceivably could open emergency responders to civil lawsuits if they weren't monitoring a particular site when someone tried to pass information to them there, said Edward Robson, an attorney with the Philadelphia-based Robson and Robson law firm.

As a general rule, federal emergency responders are legally required to act only on information citizens should reasonably expect that they've received, Robson said. Five years ago, few people would have expected a local fire department to be constantly checking its Facebook page, but as social media surges in popularity, those presumptions may change, he said, and the fire station's liability along with them.

Robson suggested state and local emergency managers post blanket statements on social media sites stating they are not actively monitoring the sites and send automatic replies to people who text 911, warning them that no one is receiving those texts.

Only a fraction of local emergency officials are prepared to accept texts, but the Federal Communications Commission and other agencies are working on a nationwide 911 texting system.

The growing prevalence of text messaging has led many people to presume texts to emergency officials will get through if they're unable to make a call. During the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, for example, several people who were hiding from the student gunman and afraid to make noise later reported that they'd texted 911.

While social media can provide a greater volume of information during an emergency, it has also democratized information flows, panelists said, forcing local police and fire chiefs and state and federal officials to be more transparent about operations.

"Once you could control all the information going into and out of an emergency situation," Geringer said. "But one-way messaging won't work anymore. What you do and say will be blogged about in real time. The public wants to engage in a dialogue. If you don't build trust with them there's going to be anarchy and that's the greatest risk."