Twitter and public safety: Agencies seek to inform

Their aim is to give public timely, accurate information

By Emily Gillespie, Columbian breaking news reporter



Public safety agencies on Twitter

Clark County AMR

Handle: @clarkamr

Followers: 91.

Tweets: 10.

First Tweet: “Test” 9:30 p.m. July 16, 2009.

Clark County Fire and Rescue

Handle: @C_C_F_R

Followers: 1,003.

Tweets: 1,130.

First Tweet: “Welcome to Clark County Fire & Rescue’s new Twitter page. Follow us for up to date news and emergency responses.” 10:05 a.m. May 2, 2010.

Clark County Fire District 3

Handle: @ClarkCoFD3FA

Followers: 38.

Tweets: 4.

First Tweet: “This is a test. (For Thu. Jul 23rd)” 10:17 a.m. July 23, 2009.

Clark County Fire District 6

Handle: @CCFD6

Followers: 124

Tweets: 216

First Tweet: (picture of firefighters using a chainsaw to help fight a fire) 1:32 p.m. June 27, 2013.

Clark County Sheriff’s Office

Handle: @ClarkCoSheriff

Followers: 1,512.

Tweets: 481.

First Tweet: “Date: May 4th, 2010 Case # S10-6484 Contact: Detective Alex Schoening, CCSO Traffic Unit. 360-397-2211 xt 4175 Prepared by: Detecti” 1:38 a.m. May 5, 2010.

Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency

Handle: @CRESATalk

Followers: 268.

Tweets: 1,103.

First Tweet: “@TimBledsoe 2 inches on the valley floor between 4p-12a, 3-4 inches in the Clark foothills and 1-4 inches in the gorge! Drive safe!” 8:32 a.m. Nov. 22, 2010.

Handle: @CRESA

Followers: 1,627.

Tweets: 665.

First Tweet: “winter weather preparedness tips at” 7:34 a.m. Dec. 10, 2008.

East County Fire and Rescue

Handle: @ecfr91

Followers: 147

Tweets: 1,829

First Tweet: “Responded to a traumatic injury in the Mt. Livingston Fire Station 92 area.” 1:20 p.m. April 22, 2011.

Ridgefield Police Department

Handle: @RidgefieldWaPD

Followers: 479.

Tweets: 96.

First Tweet: “Working on Twitter web site.” 2 p.m. April 2, 2009.

Vancouver Police Department

Handle: @VancouverPDUSA

Followers: 1,977.

Tweets: 306.

First Tweet: “Vancouver Banner Bank Branch Robbed: 5:06 p.m. Jan. 28, 2010.

Washington State Department of Transportation, Southwest Region

Handle: @wsdot_sw

Followers: 2,097.

Tweets: 2,639.

First Tweet: “Greetings Twitterverse! WSDOT SW Region signing on for duty. Get your SW WA traffic info here.” 1:11 p.m. Aug. 7, 2012.

Washington State Patrol, Southwest Region

Handle: @wspd5pio

Followers: 2,324.

Tweets: 923.

First Tweet: “WSP SW WA Twitter is up and running! Please help me get the word out! #WSPTweetParty 12 - 1 Today!” Noon May 13, 2013.

— Compiled by Emily Gillespie

In the days and weeks that followed a Vancouver woman live-tweeting a crash that killed her husband, Washington State Patrol Trooper Will Finn received what he called hate mail.

"It was negative comments and commentary from folks that believe … I shouldn't be sending anything out, and how inappropriate it was for me to do that," he said.

Finn, the public information officer for the Vancouver area, tweeted information about a fatal crash on Interstate 205 the afternoon of Dec. 4. Before knowing that her husband, Craig Johnson, was the victim, Caran Johnson also tweeted about the crash from the Twitter handle @scancouver. Realizing her husband was late coming home, she tweeted her anguish and asked Finn questions via Twitter.

When Finn learned it was, in fact, her husband who had died, he sped up the notification process. Two troopers went to her house to deliver the news.

Even with the tragedy unfolding how it did and with the angry backlash he received, Finn said he's glad he uses Twitter.

"If we didn't, she would have found out from a complete stranger on social media and not from Washington State Patrol," he said.

Troopers went to the Johnson house to deliver the news in person, Finn said, which is important.

"We can go to her and say, 'This is what we have so far, this is what we're going to do. Is there anything we can do for you?'?" he said. "Versus, your family member has just died and you have no answers. … You have no legitimate source standing there letting you know what happened and why it happened."

Immediacy of Twitter

In the age of social media, Twitter reigns when it comes to immediate news.

Some Clark County public safety agencies have embraced the social media tool, sending out 140 characters or fewer several times a day, while others have yet to sign up for an account.

"My whole goal when I took on Twitter was to be the legitimate source that people are going to for information," Finn said.

That is the same reason that other Clark County public safety agencies adopted the practice of tweeting out information.

Agencies such as Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency and Washington State Department of Transportation have embraced the benefits of the real-time communication tool. One of those benefits is the information they're receiving, too.

"We can see what's going on in the community," said Eric Frank, emergency management coordinator who is the primary manager over the two Twitter accounts for CRESA. "I see something pop up before we even get a notification from dispatch floor."

Tracking situations to see if they require more resources is Frank's job, so the tool is helpful for keeping a finger on the pulse of what's happening around the county.

How WSDOT uses it

WSDOT uses the tool to notify people of traffic crashes, road hazards or construction projects that can affect a motorist's commute.

Spokeswoman for the transportation agency Magan Reed said that using Twitter gives the agency a chance to help people understand how they operate and why they do the things they do.

But, she said, that doesn't mean they can't add a humorous flair.

For example, on April 7, WSDOT notified its followers that a collision was being cleared by sending this tweet: "Holy tow trucks, Batman! Two ginormous tows have arrived at SB I-205 collision in Salmon Ck." It included a photo of the scene.

"If we were just out there with robotic messaging … people would start to tune us out," Reed said. "By allowing our personalities to come through, it really makes us seem more approachable and accessible."

Some agencies, such as the Vancouver Fire Department, don't even have an account.

Fire Chief Joe Molina said that the reason is because the agency doesn't have a dedicated public information officer.

When the full-time public information officer retired in 2011, the agency also went through budget reductions, resulting in the loss of a public information system, Molina said. The hope is to resolve the issue by the end of the year and to make Twitter a part of that program.

"It's on the priority list," he said. "It would help us get the story out there for the people who need it."