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Social Media and Emergency Response

Emergency response teams need to upgrade the ways they communicate with each other and the public. But what's the best way to do so?

In the past week, the earth has been feeling the wrath of wind and fire.

Windstorms brought down over 700 power lines, causing 85 fires throughout the neighborhoods of Detroit, Mich. After the fires were put out by over 200 firefighters, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing and Fire Commissioner James Mack faced a barrage of questions about the fire department's manpower shortages and the DTE Energy's sluggish response to the downed lines.

A wildfire accompanied by up to 50 mph winds in the Boulder, Colo., area destroyed 169 houses and forced thousands of residents to evacuate their homes. Residents, still not being allowed back into the 8,000-acre evacuated area, have become anxious to learn more about the status of their homes and whatever belongings -- or animals -- were still inside when they left.

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the nation realized the importance of efficient and effective communication during emergency response situations. The New York Times recently published an article outlining the still-present problem of poor public safety radio. It's been almost a decade since 9/11, but our multi-billion-dollar efforts to improve public safety departments' communication have yielded very few results. In fact, during the 2005 Hurricane Katrina relief work, some emergency personnel had to resort to communicating by running handwritten notes back and forth. While the feds continue to try and figure out a way to utilize public safety radio for emergencies, some states and localities have come with solutions of their own.

Some Boulder-area residents have turned to social media outlets to find answers and information. One New Jersey county has implemented a network of shared emergency information using Facebook and Twitter.

Since 9/11, social media has evolved into a powerful -- and fast -- communication tool. So, could its potency be harnessed into a potent means of communication in emergency situations?

Somewhat related: If anyone decides to burn a copy of the Quran tomorrow, let's hope the winds stay out of it. To play it safe, let's just hope nothing gets burned.

First it was a wildfire in Boulder, then downed power lines in Detroit, and now, a ruptured pipeline in San Bruno, Calif. Let's hope for safe and speedy resolutions to these disasters.

Andy Kim is a former GOVERNING staff writer.
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