davesloggettThe London Fire Brigade have suggested that they might allow people to tweet emergencies instead of calling 999. Fire’s Security Correspondent Dr Dave Sloggett explores the issues:

Until recently the London Fire Brigade has maintained a clear view on the use of Twitter when it comes to reporting emergencies. As it does not monitor Twitter 24 hours a day it has said that this is not the way any member of the public should report fire or any other forms of emergencies to which the Brigade may have to respond.

However just before Christmas the brigade suggesting it was having a re-think on the issue. Deputy Commissioner Rita Dexter said that “with over half a billion people using Twitter it is quite clear that social media is here to stay”. She went onto say that as the Brigade is the biggest fire service in the country that “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”.

To back up the importance of social media to the brigade an example was noted of a large fire that occurred in West London in January 2012. With the police helicopter unavailable brigade staff turned to social media sites to get some information on the scale of the blaze they were facing. Onlookers had quickly posted video clips of what was happening at the scene.

This kind of real-time reporting from the citizen journalist can be helpful in gaining situational awareness. But it does have its dangers. If legal proceedings were to be brought over the response of the brigade to the fire that self-same videos that have been so helpful may also be turned against those responding to the fire.

Interestingly this is an example of why the Fire and Rescue Services need their own autonomous helicopter capabilities. For years many in the service have rejected this idea but as patterns of flooding and the kind of large scale fires specifically cited by the brigade provide instances of when an airborne capability to look over an area where lives are at risk is important. As the weathermen suggest that the recent spate of flooding is not an isolated set of incidences but an example of meteorological patterns that are likely to be regular occurrences perhaps the time is right for the brigade and other parts of the service to look again at the benefits of owning and operating their own dedicated helicopters.

Aside from the obvious issue of the need to gain access to as much information as possible about large-scale fires the idea of people tweeting 999 calls is fraught with problems. Whilst few would doubt the value of being involved in Twitter as a one-way means of any fire service communicating with the public it is not necessarily a good vehicle for what is essentially a two-way dialogue when it comes to making a 999 call. Some more detailed analysis also exposes some issues.

Firstly the current 140 character limit on current tweets can pose problems for people actually seeking to report the location and type of fire that they have seen. In remote rural areas, albeit not such a concern for the London Fire Brigade, simply trying to define a precise location is going to have its challenges. The implication is that if an initial tweet arrives into the London Fire Brigade that some form of twitter-based conversation will then occur. This can also have its drawbacks.

The potential for information to be misinterpreted is huge, especially if too many abbreviations are used. In an emergency people can misspell messages. The rate at which information flows is also faster when an operator speaks to a person. On some mobile devices the typing rate is slow even if predictive text is used. Such delays can be overcome through a phone call.

However to be fair in analysing the argument tweets do get through when mobile phone coverage is poor. This can occur in some built-up areas. When a phone call may be difficult a tweet can still be received as the bandwidth required is so much lower. That offers a means by which someone in a remote area may still be capable of reporting a fire or another form of emergency, even if the speed with which they can send the overall message is much slower than is possible by voice. In an event the rate of flow of tweets alerting the brigade to the emergency might also create problems that need to be managed. At least with a phone it is quite straightforward to work out that the incident has already been reported.

Whilst some of the technical issues raised by the suggestion can no doubt be tackled by developing suitable procedures the largest single danger to the use of Twitter is the hoax call. By avoiding voice contact someone with mischievous intent may think they can get away with buying, stealing or obtaining an unregistered a mobile phone and using it once to cause a mobilisation of the brigade. In Northern Ireland for example dissident republican groups routinely make hoax calls to the police. These are designed to draw them into ambushes, putting them in harm’s way.

With over 30 million 999 calls being made a year it is understandable that the emergency services should look to novel ways of handling the information that they contain. The London Fire Brigade are being innovative in their suggestion about using Twitter as a means of reporting fires. It is however an idea that needs to be treated with some caution. Whilst no-one appears to be suggesting that 999 calls are replaced by tweeting emergencies there are clearly some quite detailed and subtle issues that will need to be addressed if the reliability of the response to reported emergencies is to be maintained.