How to save lives with social media

Campus emergency expert discusses the importance of social media, text messaging

social-media-campusThe night before Byron Piatt was scheduled to speak about campus emergencies at the 2014 ACUTA conference in Dallas, Texas, his campus was experiencing an emergency of its own.

Protestors clashed with Albuquerque police on March 30 following days of demonstrations over a series of deadly police shootings. The University of New Mexico, where Piatt works as an emergency manager, lies at the heart of the city, and the confrontation spilled onto campus.

At 9 p.m., the university’s Twitter account sent out a tweet to its 19,000 followers.

“Campus residents should shelter in place due to protests and police activity at Central and Girard,” it read. “Please avoid the area.”

The police, riding horses and wearing riot gear, deployed tear gas into the crowds, sending a cloud of it rolling across the university’s Johnson Field and even, reportedly, into some dorm bedrooms. At 10 p.m. students received another tweet from the university’s account.

“UNM RAs have informed us that tear gas has been clearing out quickly. If your room is affected, please turn off AC to prevent gas spreading.”

Eight minutes later, the university tweeted “ALL CLEAR.”

Twitter is not the only way Piatt and his staff notify students during emergency situations, he said to a small crowd in Dallas less than 24 hours later. But it is an increasingly important method of communication.

“We can either be a part of the process or get left behind by it,” Piatt said, adding that in emergency situations, misinformation can quickly spread due to a lack of real information. “If individuals are not getting the info they want, they’ll put out information themselves.”

(Next page: Methods of emergency communication)

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