Ideas you can use now: The easy way to use Twitter for emergencies

Wed, 2013-10-02 06:00 -- Jesse Berst

Boston Police send emergency alerts via TwitterI come from the smart grid industry, where utilities have been using Twitter for years to communicate with customers during outages. To date, however, each utility has had to sign up customers one-by-one for the notification service. Now Twitter has announced a simpler method. Anyone who signs up for its new disaster alert service will automatically get updates from all participating agencies, whether global (World Health Organization), federal (U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency) or local (Tokyo Disaster Prevention Service).

From where I sit, every city in the world should sign on. Yes, you may still need and want your own separate notification service -- not every alert a city sends is about a disaster -- but this is an easy, quick and cost-free way to greatly expand your reach. -- Jesse Berst

Intended for local, national and international organizations, a Twitter blog says priority access to the feature is available to:

  • Law enforcement and public safety agencies
  • Emergency management agencies
  • City and municipal governments, as well as their agencies and representatives
  • County and regional agencies, providing services to cities and municipalities
  • Select state, federal, and national agencies and NGOs

Interested organizations need to complete an enrollment form.

And while an organization can determine what information merits a Twitter Alerts designation, the new feature is intended for crisis, disaster and emergency communications. Examples include:

  • Warnings for imminent dangers
  • Preventive instructions
  • Evacuation directions
  • Urgent safety alerts
  • Information on access to essential resources
  • Information on critical transit and utility outages
  • Crowd and misinformation management

“Social media has revolutionized communication during disasters,” says FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate (@CraigatFEMA). “Today we have a two-way street — residents are informed about hazards in real time and emergency managers receive immediate feedback on the consequences of a disaster. Twitter Alerts provide an opportunity to get information directly from trusted sources.”

Earlier this year in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing,  people turned to @BostonPolice and @DHSgov for safety details. “During the marathon emergency, the City of Boston used Twitter as a tool to provide reliable, official information, and also to help correct misinformation,” says Lindsay Crudele, community and social technology strategist for the City of Boston. Now, Crudele adds: “We’re looking to Twitter Alerts as a means to help increase visibility and accessibility of reliable, official information. This will help us support the safety of our residents.”

You can see a list of cities and other agencies already participating in Twitter Alerts here.


Jesse Berst is the founding Chairman of the Smart Cities Council. Click to subscribe to SmartCitiesNow, the weekly newsletter highlighting smart city trends, technologies and techniques.