How to save lives with social media

While police dogs and a bomb squad combed through the now-empty buildings, students and faculty stood outside in the cold waiting to be let back in. The team sent out another alert, telling students to go home and that classes would be cancelled until after noon.

Things were going smoothly by that point, Piatt recalled, until an official pointed out another complication. “What are we going to do about the 20 busloads of kids coming to campus?” the official asked.

4,000 elementary students were scheduled to arrive that afternoon to watch a performance of “The Nutcracker.” The show, like morning classes, would have to be cancelled, Piatt and his team decided.

In the end, no bombs were found that day, but one final crisis did emerge — one of public relations.

Somehow, a local news channel mistakenly reported that a bomb had been found. Piatt’s team quickly noticed the error as it made its way around Facebook, Twitter, and online discussion boards. They contacted the station and had the report corrected.

“Social media is multi-directional communication,” he said. “It’s real-time. It’s an open dialogue. It’s unstructured. Monitoring social media is important.”

Simply paying attention to social feeds can be as worthwhile as using it to communicate, Piatt said. Officials can see rumors, and confirm or deny them immediately. Sometimes a tweet might be sent out by a student before anyone even calls 911.

Live images and details of an ongoing situation can be helpful to emergency officials, but that doesn’t mean you should prioritize sending a tweet when, say, your apartment building catches on fire, Piatt warned.

“Exit the building before tweeting about it,” he said.

 Follow Jake New on Twitter at @eCN_Jake.

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