Communities get social during emergencies

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If there's a brush fire or earthquake in California's Ventura County, city officials could be getting critical information from Twitter and residents could be receiving warnings on their smartphones.

For emergency management, this county system is getting social.

Officials in Ventura County, with 875,000 residents in Southern California, needed a way to reach people - whether all of them or just specific neighborhoods -- in the event of emergencies. The problem is that calling people's home phones isn't always effective. If residents are at work or on the road or simply too busy to pick up the phone, they might not hear about an evacuation or other warning.

Now county officials are working to get around that problem by using Everbridge's Interactive Visibility software as a service.

The screenshot shows information provided via a mobile app from Everbridge.

Glendale, Calif.-based Everbridge launched its first emergency outreach system, which only provided recorded messages to people's landlines, in 2002. Last month, the system was updated with social capabilities.

With this service, Patrick Maynard, program administrator and alert and warning coordinator for the Ventura County Sheriff's Office, is able to contact people over their landlines or on their cell phones, by email, instant message or text message.

"Our hope is that one of those messages will go through," said Maynard, whose department has been using a beta version of the Everbridge system since January, but plans to officially sign on. "People can give us different pathways to contact them and they can specify if they want their cell phone called first. If that doesn't work, than call the landline or send a text message. We now have multiple options."

Maynard also noted that he can trigger the alert system from an app on his smartphone.

"If I was out in the field and I didn't have access to a computer, I could pull out my cell phone and launch calls to thousands of residents," he added. "That's pretty amazing. It offers some flexibility. I'm not always in my office. I might be in the back of a Suburban with rain and wind blowing."

Maynard said the county adopted a mass system for 911 calls in 2008, which provided access to 46 phones lines at a time, but with 875,000 residents, the system was too slow. Notifying a neighborhood of 2,000 residents could take 45 minutes to three hours, he said.

The new service isn't only for pushing out information, Maynard said. He can use it to gather information from Twitter about what county residents are experiencing in specific areas.

"On Twitter, there's some fairly amazing information that comes in," said Imad Mouline, chief technology officer with Everbridge, whose customers also include the city of Boston and Virginia Tech. "Part of what we wanted to do was give this as complementary information... Is there a pattern showing up on Twitter that tells me I need to pay attention to a certain situation?"

Mouline, said users can set up controls that will alert them if tweets about their city or area jump from, say, 100 tweets per hour to 1,000 tweets per hour. They also can set it up so the Everbridge system monitors for certain key words, such as fire, flood or earthquake. Eventually, the company plans to monitor Facebook or Google+ activity for the same purpose.

Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group, said it's smart for municipalities to think social as an option for communicating with its residents.

"This is a smart move by local government to take advantage of technology to provide better service to constituents," he added. "In addition, increasing communications between government and citizens will also decrease the workload on government as they can use fewer workers to communicate with more people."

Read more about social media in Computerworld's Social Media Topic Center.

This story, "Communities get social during emergencies" was originally published by Computerworld.

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