Adding Twitter to Your Healthcare Emergency Notification Plan

Proactively alert phone and computer users using this popular communication tool.

When it comes to issuing alerts and related messages, a growing number of government agencies, educational institutions and others are adding Twitter to their Emergency Notification strategy.

An emergency notification (or mass notification), according to David Fleming, marketing manager at Code Blue, an emergency communication systems vendor, “is a one-way communication sent by first responders or security personnel to a large group of individuals who may be in harm’s way to alert them of a security risk.  This could be a weather-related incident (such as a snowstorm or a tornado), natural disaster (wildfire, earthquake, etc.), fire, medical outbreak, active shooter or chemical spill.”

Traditional emergency notification channels have included:

  • press releases sent to the broadcast media (when there’s enough lead time, of course)
  • automated outbound phone calling
  • E-mail, SMS text messages
  • announcements by radio and television broadcast media
  • digital signage, including “ticker” or even screen take-over
  • Web banners
  • sirens and public address systems
  • Wireless Emergency Alerts, which are text messages sent to mobile devices within geographically-targeted cell towers’ service areas
  • some organizations even offer their own mobile apps.

Over the past several years, Twitter and other social media have been added to the list.

(In case you’ve lost track, Twitter is basically a “micro-blogging” site, for “tweets,” which are posts no more than 140 characters, similar to SMS text message length. Tweet content may in turn include URLs (usually “shortened”) and links to attached pictures. With more than half a billion registered users of 2012— although you don’t have to register to be able to see publicly viewable Tweets — Twitter has been nicknamed “the SMS of the Internet.”)

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For example, one government agency using Twitter is the Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency CRESA, according to Cheryl Bledsoe, division manager of Emergency Management for the state of Washington’s Clark County. “We serve 435,000 residents, seven cities and the county in general. Information is our only commodity. We receive 911 calls and other contacts, and we communicate information to the public and to emergency response stakeholders like the police, fire, public health and public works departments, as well as to community organizations, non-profits, businesses and volunteer groups.”

CRESA began using social media in 2008, according to Bledsoe. “We wanted a more dynamic way to communicate. Wireless wasn’t as common then, and our Web site was hard to update without involving IT. We began with a blog CRESA911, on BlogSpot, which we still have, then added a Facebook fan page, and then also two Twitter accounts: @CRESA for emergency alerts, and @CRESATalk for everyday information and also for emergency-related information.”

Bledsoe says adding Twitter to their strategy has been successful. “Tweeting has helped responders find missing people in time, fill our training classes quickly and get responses when we have community requests for help,” she says. “Using Twitter is more efficient for us than traditional press releases, email, etc., and by using Twitter, we have been able to enhance our reputation with the local news media and work better with them.”

In addition to alerting about the events, “We communicate with the public on how they can protect themselves, help us, volunteer and other helpful announcements,” says Bledsoe.

Similarly, in 2010 and 2011, Maryland’s Cecil County, located in between the cities of Philadelphia and Baltimore, turned to Twitter (@CecilCountyDES), along with Facebook and other social media platforms, to augment its emergency notification reach for its 418-square miles and 100,000-person population.

“We have four ‘audiences,’” says James E. Hamilton, emergency preparedness manager, Cecil County Department of Emergency Services. “There’s the general population, ‘itinerant guests’ like travelers and people at weekend or vacation homes, partner agencies like emergency responders, and elected officials and other key decision makers. Plus there’s the media, which we consider a partner, and a way to help us reach the general public.”

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