The Bird is the Word

April 24, 2013
The Boston Marathon attack illustrated once again the promise of Twitter and other social media for emergency mass notification

When analyzing an emergency mass notification plan, unfortunately it tends to take an actual emergency to see how it works in action. Such was the case in Boston last week, when jammed phone and SMS lines created snarled and ineffective communications.

The Boston Police, however, seemed as prepared for the communications breakdown as they were for the actual emergency response. Using social media — mainly Twitter — Boston Police was able to spread its emergency notification messages literally across the globe in a matter of minutes; and, thanks to the help of the media and concerned citizens from all points on the compass, that message was multiplied at an exponential rate.

I count 30 Tweets concerning the bombing — everything from calls to clear the area to injury counts and scheduled news conferences — on the @Boston_Police feed alone on April 15. Cheryl Fiandaca, the Bureau Chief of Public Information for the Boston Police, sent out 20 Tweets that day as well; and those 50 Tweets must have been re-tweeted more times than a mere human could count. I wish I made a note of the amount of Twitter followers Ms. Finadaca had when news of the attack began to circulate, but I’d imagine that number ballooned significantly to the nearly 7,000 it stands at today.

I’ve often been asked what kind of value “industry x” or “company y” can actually get from using social media. For the emergency mass notification community — of which most if not all security managers and executives are a part — the idea is a no-brainer. Barring catastrophe, the Internet will remain in operation in spite of any number of emergency situations, from terrorist bombings, to tornados, to blackouts. Luckily, mobile technology is keeping pace, enabling just about any of us to connect to the Internet with unprecedented ease.

It’s a lesson that any security manager can take to heart. While your organization’s emergency may not have the far-reaching implications of the Boston bombing, you can have the same kind of reach as the Boston Police did on April 15.

This concept has already taken hold among many of our college and university campuses — which makes sense, as the prevailing student body these days is tremendously connected. Find me a student without his or her own Twitter feed, Facebook page and Linkedin profile and I will show you a rebel. Most campus security departments are tied into social media; and the majority of the students are followers of those feeds and pages.

A survey conducted by the American Red Cross last year even went so far as to identify a specific class of social media user — the "emergency social user." These are people who use social media during emergencies, and are most likely to take a safety or preparedness action based on the information they see in their social networks.

The Boston attack wasn’t the first time that social media fueled the flow of emergency information as if it were gasoline on a flame. If you were on Twitter or Facebook on the day of the Aurora theater massacre, or Newtown, and now Boston, you already know how quickly word of an emergency situation can spread on the social network. The next major incident will be the same.

In the case of police departments and other homeland security users, social media can be harnessed for so many things beyond traditional mass notification. Got an unsolved crime? Post the surveillance video on Twitter and see what shakes out of the tree. Looking for anonymous tips on a crime? The safety of and potential obscurity of social media users is a perfect fit.

Are you on Twitter yet; or, just as important, does your security department have a Twitter feed yet? What about Facebook? If you have been Twitter-resistant, it’s time to break out of your comfort zone — social media has become a tool which you simply cannot afford to ignore. If you are new to the game, make sure your colleagues and fellow employees know what you’re doing. Get them to follow your Twitter feed in the name of employee safety — if the worst happens that may be the only way you have of reaching them.

Note: Concepts like using social media for mass notification are among the many topics with a municipal security tie-in that have educational discussion potential at Secured Cities, the premeier conference on urban security and municipal surveillance. This year's conference is in Baltimore on Nov. 14-15. Visit for more information.