What have the emergency number 999 and Twitter got in common?
On the face of it very little at first sight, yet they do share one rather intriguing common denominator: both were derided when they were first introduced into service, yet both appear to be working rather well in spite of that. The 999 call was first introduced in 1935 so that the public could communicate directly with the emergency services when trouble was brewing. It was criticised when first introduced. However, it’s been an obvious success. Last year alone BT took over 30 million emergency calls. But if it is such a success, then why has the London Fire Brigade (LFB) introduced a new Twitter service to report emergencies? Well, the short answer is that the social media has changed the way we communicate, and LFB has acknowledged that it must to if it wants to stay relevant and proactive in the public consciousness.
According to Rita Dexter, deputy commissioner for the London Fire Brigade, the proliferation of smartphones and tablets now means that the service has to improve the way it communicates with the public:
“With over a billion people now using Facebook and half a billion using Twitter, it’s quite clear that social media is here to stay. The London Fire Brigade is the biggest fire service in the country and we think it’s important to look into ways to improve how we communicate with the public and how they can get in touch with us.”
“It’s time to look at new ways for people to report emergencies quickly and efficiently and social media could provide the answer in the future.”
LFB has said that it will share its experiences with other emergency services. However, many of these are already making use of the social media to monitor and track fires. In January, 2012, fire fighters relied on the social media for vital on-the-ground information after a large fire broke out in West London. They used Twitter to gather as much reconnaissance as possible as the police helicopter was unavailable. Information was relayed back to experts at headquarters who were able to make an assessment as to the severity of the situation. Other fire services have used the platform to tweet awareness campaigns around traditionally busy periods like Bonfire Night.
So does it work, given that the new Twitter service isn’t monitored 24 hours a day?
Well, the answer seems to be yes – it does. Accounts like @LondonFire have already attracted over 30,000 followers.
Mind you, LFB isn’t the only public service using the social media to communicate and engage with the public. Drivers in Gloucestershire can now receive updates online about which roads have been gritted in the county. Forget Ian Dury and ‘Clever Trevor’: say hello to GritterTwitter. The social media service will be used to tweet regular updates on the weather, road conditions and gritting activity.
Councillor, and cabinet member for communities, Will Windsor Clive, told the BBC that the service would allow drivers to make more “informed decisions” before travelling in severe weather:
“When we have severe weather people want to be reassured that we are out treating the roads, where we have been and when. Using Twitter is a simple, free way of getting these messages out there and more and more people are using Twitter every day.”