July 26, 2009 By Hilton Collins
When you see the words "social media" or "Web 2.0," a fire department or emergency management office probably isn't the first thing that comes to mind -- or the second or third. You likely think first of people who use Facebook, Twitter and instant messenger to type and click about life, love, work and any other topic you can think of. But social networks aren't only tools for citizens to talk to friends who are two counties away about what they did last night. A city fire department can use them to inform the public about a traffic accident down the street, a tremor that hit hours ago or any number of other emergencies.
In May 2009, the Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) informed the public about numerous incidents through Twitter, a free messaging platform that lets users post text message updates on the Internet, an action called "tweeting" or "twittering." The tweets are sent to other users, called "followers," who subscribe to them. Twitter members commonly post about their daily thoughts and activities in messages of 140 characters or less.
Brian Humphrey, the LAFD's public service officer, tweeted on May 17 at 8:41 p.m. about "a significant seismic event" that hit Greater Los Angeles area. This was followed by successive tweets throughout the night revealing more details, including the quake's magnitude. In another example, D'Lisa Davies, a department spokeswoman, tweeted on May 20 about a highway accident involving a hospital bus.
The department has multiple Twitter accounts, and the aforementioned tweets came from its @LAFD presence, which focuses on breaking news stories, alerts and advisories. That account had nearly 5,000 followers as of the end of June.
According to Humphrey, the department's goal is to keep people from being cut off from information in a crisis, which he likens to what happened to Hurricane Katrina victims housed in the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans. The people trapped there couldn't reach the outside world, and the outside world couldn't reach them.
"The people at the Superdome were darn hungry. They were darn thirsty, but they were not dying from hunger or thirst," Humphrey said. "What they were dying from a little bit at a time was a lack of information. We were dying from a lack of information as well. We didn't know what was going on. It was a two-way lack of conversing."
The LAFD uses Web tools like Twitter to provide citizens an additional information pipeline whether or not catastrophe strikes.
"We think these tools represent a great opportunity for better situational awareness and a more timely response to the specific needs of those we proudly serve," Humphrey said.
The LAFD doesn't restrict its forays into social media to Twitter. The department has distributed video on YouTube, a video sharing site; posts updates on networking site Facebook, allowing users to share photos, videos, instant messages and other information over personalized networks; has a page on MySpace, another social networking site; uploads images of firefighters in action to image and video hosting site Flickr; bookmarks press releases, announcements and other communications on Del.icio.us, a site where people organize and categorize links; and belongs to Digg, a site for members to submit content that other members can rate in importance and comment upon.
Travel more than 2,500 miles away to Philadelphia, and you'll see the same enthusiasm for social media from Joan Przybylowicz, deputy director of external affairs and the public information officer for the Philadelphia Managing Director's Office of Emergency Management.
"We're just looking at different tools that
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