The e-newsletter of the COPS Office | Volume 3 | Issue 4 | April 2010

Social Networks:
A Community Policing Technique for Disaster Response

September 11, Hurricane Katrina, tsunamis, earthquakes, airport security, cell phones, camera phones, 2-way Internet usage, texting, Facebook, blogging, etc. What in the world, you may ask, do these all have in common? They all reflect changes within the past 10 years in how society communicates during a disaster. Has community policing changed to reflect these advances in technology?

Hopefully it has, because today’s public is quite tech savvy. People depend on e-mail more than mail. Many prefer texting instead of phone calls. People no longer wait for the morning paper or the 10 p.m. news for information; they go to the Internet. It is now common for web sites and e-mails to accept live pictures and streaming videos from the sites of a disaster, thus changing how public safety officials and people handle disasters. Even the traditional acceptance of a 911 call and someone with a badge arriving on the scene to radio in a confirmation is no longer the only way to respond to a disaster. For example, during the fires in Big Sur, California, and the Washington, D.C. Metro crash, public safety officials used 2-way Internet communication with the community. As a result, the public celebrated them as a progressive leader.

More recently, only 2 days after the Haiti Earthquake, a team from Thomson Reuters Foundation's AlertNet humanitarian news service touched down in a twin-prop plane at Port-au-Prince's international airport to set up the first-ever Emergency Information Service (EIS), offering Haitians free, practical SMS messages to help minimize the disaster's impact. Despite countless logistical setbacks, EIS got off the ground in about 48 hours, and since its launch, thousands have used the service to report missing persons, shelter problems, and food issues. Just a few days after the earthquake, EIS was able to direct injured Haitians via text message to one of the few hospitals able to treat patients. The service also helped search-and-rescue teams to find people trapped in the rubble. In one case, a man trapped for 5 days in a collapsed building in downtown Port-au-Prince sent a text message that was received by the EIS team. Working through the night with experts around the world, the team was able to translate the message into GPS coordinates and dispatch a search-and-rescue team, saving the man’s life.

The Gulf States Regional Center for Public Safety Innovations (GSRCPI), a Regional Community Policing Institute, offers a course on incorporating Web 2.0 Technologies into agencies:

Some of the recommendations from the course include:

  1. Incorporating a truly interactive Facebook and Twitter page for your department. One example is in Olive Branch, Mississippi. Their 4900+ followers have helped find missing children, identify the location of armed robbers, and more. THAT IS COMMUNITY POLICING in action!
  2. Setting up 911 response centers with the ability to accept pictures and streaming video from disaster or crash sites.
  3. Incorporating Internet blog followers into emergency command centers much the same way HAM radio operators are utilized.

Of course all this “progress” comes first with a change in mind set, which includes building a trusting relationship with the community and opening yourself up to new ideas about what constitutes “communication” with your community. Proper rules and procedures need to be in place to protect the agencies, officers, and privacy of victims; however, those are minor logistical problems compared to the gain of saving lives and making our communities safer!

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