Getting the word out, 140 characters at a time

Conference promotes value of Twitter to public agencies

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Even with speakers on stage, the audience’s attention shifted between the real world and the digital mere clicks away.

Anywhere else, it might have been considered rude. On Thursday, not so much.

Techies from government agencies throughout Southwest Washington and Northwest Oregon gathered in a conference center at the Hilton Vancouver Washington for the 140 Characters Conference, a popular social media forum held in cities the world over.

If you’re a Twitter user like the 100 or so folks who packed the ballroom, you’ll understand the significance of 140. If not, it’s the amount of characters allotted for each tweet, or message, made on the popular social network Twitter.

The central tenet of Thursday’s conference was this: No longer are Twitter and Facebook platforms for you to share what you had for breakfast or how your afternoon run went (not exclusively, at least); rather, social media has morphed into a valuable tool for agencies such as police and fire departments that need to get information out to the public — and fast.

Of the dozen or so 140 Characters Conferences that have been held around the world, Thursday’s was the first to focus primarily on how public sector organizations can best disseminate information through social media.

Ahead of the pack

Cheryl Bledsoe of Clark Regional Emergency Services took it upon herself to bring the conference to Vancouver. CRESA has for two years been in front of the government pack by operating a Facebook fan page, a blog and two Twitter accounts.

Bledsoe said before Thursday’s event that CRESA was drawn to social media about two years ago as concerns over swine flu ran rampant and unnerved people needed information.

“(Social media) is a way for us to communicate with people we wouldn’t normally be able to communicate with,” Bledsoe explained of the agency’s efforts to embrace technology.

On its Twitter and Facebook pages, CRESA sends out emergency weather updates, plays games that promote safety with its following and lets people know about upcoming training events.

“We’ve publicized our education events and as a result gotten better turnout,” said Bledsoe, who received a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of Atlanta to pay for the conference.

Several local agencies that use Twitter were represented at the social media conference.

Dawn Johnson of Clark County Fire District 6 said she uses the medium to let the public know about wrecks tying up traffic and large fires or emergency events in visible parts of town. She carries with her to breaking news events a camera and an iPhone.

On Wednesday, she sent two tweets: “Water rescue @ Vancouver lake”; “Man rescued and transported to OHSU w/ mild hypothermia.”

Among her 54 followers, Johnson said there are engaged citizens who want to know what’s going on and area media outlets.

“My initial reason for doing it was getting the information out to the public,” Johnson said. “I was surprised media was using it. A lot of times I’ll put out something and then get calls from the media.”

Using Twitter, Johnson said, cuts back on calls from people who drive by a fire or crash and become curious to know what’s going on.

“It kind of eliminates a need for them to contact us because we’ve already put that out there,” she said. “It gives us a direct and immediate line to the public.”

Several, but not all, local law enforcement and public safety agencies are actively engaged on either Twitter or Facebook.

Among them are the Vancouver Police Department, which has become increasingly active in recent days, Fire District 6, CRESA and Clark County Fire & Rescue.

The Clark County Sheriff’s Office and Vancouver Fire Department are not on Twitter. That may soon change.

Increasingly, people are consuming more and more information online, and not from official sources. You might have known that from personal experiences, but statistics shared Thursday by Lise Harwin of the Oregon chapter of the American Red Cross bear it out:

• 16 percent of people say they use social media to get information on a disaster.

• 49 percent say they would definitely use social media to let friends and family know they’re OK if affected by disaster.

• Social media is used to get information more than NOAA radio stations that broadcast weather reports, government websites and emergency text messages.

To Harwin, that means this: “You better be in these spheres,” she said to the assembled public safety and government employees.

Other speakers at the conference included Portland Mayor Sam Adams, who has nearly 35,000 Twitter followers, Vancouver City Councilor Jack Burkman and John Wiesman of Clark County Public Health.