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Using social media like Facebook, Twitter for emergency help is risky, experts say

A dispatcher is seen at a 911 call center in this undated file photo.
June 20, 2012 12:00:00 AM PDT
Can you tweet for emergency help? Can you text 911? If you post on Facebook that your house is on fire on, should you expect a rescue crew?

Social media is changing the world and now it's affecting how people reach out during a crisis. But can you really count on it?

For example, when dispatchers at a 911 center got a call from someone across the country alerting them to a local fire, they were puzzled. The caller was in Indiana and was playing a game with people on Facebook when one player posted that they were disabled, their stove was on fire and they could not get out.

Firefighters didn't brush it off as a prank. They suited up, jumped in their truck and raced to the house to find smoke pouring out of its windows. Bob Chambers, who suffers from muscular dystrophy and has limited movement, was inside and home alone. When the fire started, he couldn't reach the phone, so he used his specialized keyboard to tap out a message to the people he was playing a game with.

"A couple people that knew me shouted back, 'Are you kidding?' I went, 'No,'" Chambers said.

More and more cases of people posting cyber cries for help are popping up across the world. A recent Red Cross survey found 44 percent of people would use social media to alert rescue crews if they couldn't call 911.

That's what Kwanza Hall did after he discovered an unconscious woman on the street. His phone battery was about to die, so he tweeted a plea for someone to call the paramedics and gave his followers the location. An ambulance soon showed up and rushed the woman to the hospital.

However, experts warn that relying on social media in an emergency is risky.

"The public's expectation of what response they will get via use of social media is far beyond the capacity of public safety agencies to deliver on," said George Rice, the executive director at the Industry Council for Emergency Response Technologies, a voice for the emergency communications field.

Most agencies do not monitor social media sites for people who need help. If dispatchers are alerted to a post, they also have to figure out if it's a prank. Experts say it's difficult to discern what may be real and what may not be real.

The Federal Communications Commission is pushing for dispatch centers nationwide to update their technology to accept texts. As of now, it only works in a couple places across the country. Dialing 911 is still the best way to contact emergency dispatchers.

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