Sep 20, 2010 7:42 PM by Zach Thaxton

Police, fire depts. use social media to get info out fast

When fire broke out at a Colorado Springs apartment complex Monday, the first images from the scene appeared not on TV or the web site for the local newspaper, but rather on the fire department's Twitter page.  It continues a rapid trend of emergency response agencies utilizing social media to get information to the public immediately.

The fire broke out at the Berkshire Apartments near Vickers Drive and North Academy Boulevard at around noon Monday.  By the time local television stations arrived from their newsrooms across the city, the flames had been extinguished, but one vivid image appeared on television screens during midday newscasts Monday -- an upstairs apartment fully engulfed in flames in the seconds after the first fire engines arrived.  The photo had been posted to the Colorado Springs Fire Department's Twitter page, then utilized by traditional media to convey the seriousness of the situation.  Hours later, CSFD posted the first official information about a water rescue in Prospect Lake which tragically ended in the drownings of two Harrison High School students.

"The idea is to be able to communicate directly with the citizens of Colorado Springs without talking to each and every citizen," said Sergeant Steve Noblitt, the public information officer for Colorado Springs Police.  Noblitt attended a conference on social media use by government agencies last week in North Carolina.  CSPD utilizes Twitter and a Facebook fan page to get information to the public immediately.  "They don't have to wait for the 5:00 news or 10:00 news," Noblitt said.  "They're able to follow us and know what's going on as it happens."

Friday morning, a 76-year-old Colorado Springs man was reported missing.  CSPD posted a photo and information about Jong Chung on its Facebook page.  Chung was found safe on Saturday, and on Monday CSPD utilized its Facebook page to acknowledge the public's assistance in the search:  "During the search, members of the Colorado Springs Police Department, the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office and El Paso County Search and Rescue Unit all worked together; however, it was the assistance of the public in watching for Mr. Chung that made the search a success. The CSPD would like to thank everyone who assisted."

In August, the El Paso County Health Department heavily leveraged social media on its own and with the assistance of traditional media to get the word out about a young couple that had dropped off a rabid bat at the Pikes Peak Humane Society.  "We needed to think outside the box when we had our potential rabid bat exposure," said Dr. Bernadette Albanese, the director of El Paso County Health and Environment.  Television stations obliged a request from the Health Department to put an urgent message on their Facebook pages announcing the search for the couple and the Health Department later utilized its own YouTube page to help get out surveillance video of the couple that dropped the bat off.  Eventually, the couple came forward for examination of their potential exposure to rabies.  "That is how these individuals ended up realizing that the Health Department was trying to reach them and that we needed to conduct our investigation," Albanese said.

Not all agencies are fully on-board the social media bandwagon.  The El Paso County Sheriff's office has a YouTube page, but uses Twitter only intermittently and does not yet have a Facebook profile.  Lieutenant Lari Sevene, spokesperson for the Sheriff's Office, says it's a matter of manpower and utilizing those sites responsibly.  "I don't want to put information out on Facebook and provide some sort of avenue for dialogue and then not be able to have the resources to be timely in providing a response," Sevene said.  She also said the Sheriff's Office hopes to increase its social media presence soon.

Not all "fans" and "followers" are interested in the doom and gloom of crime, destruction, and mayhem.  "We're finding that a lot of followers really enjoy hearing about the K-9 unit," said Noblitt.  "What the K-9s are doing when they're tracking down the bad guys and how they're stopping crime."  Noblitt says despite the perception by many that Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are time-wasters at best and downright dangerous at worst, they remain effective means of delivering a message immediately.  "Social media takes seconds to use, it takes seconds to set up, and it puts you in a position where you're able to tell your story and get feedback."

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