Twitter helps emergency teams get the word out in Snohomish County

MONROE — When a house fire broke out last Monday morning, Richelle Risdon quickly logged in to her Twitter account.

As spokeswoman for Snohomish County Fire District 3, she wanted to get the word out before heading to the scene.

At 9:13 a.m.: “On my way to structure fire on tester rd”

At 1:37 p.m.: “Fire leaves one infant injured, transported to harborview. Fire’s cause is under investigation”

At 1:38 p.m.: “Current condition of infant is unknown”

In the next day or so, Risdon wrote posts often, providing bits of information as they became available.

Twitter is a Web service where anyone can post tiny messages, called “tweets,” up to 140 characters long. Members can follow each other and instantly receive messages on cell phones, computers or Blackberries.

The service, which is quickly becoming one of the most popular Web resources, is valuable because it helps get the information out fast, Risdon said.

“Right from the beginning, people already know what’s going on,” she said.

A fire department or police agency near you may be next to pop up on Twitter or Facebook.

More and more government agencies across the country are using online networking sites and other social media to reach out to their communities. It’s time Snohomish County jumped on the bandwagon, officials say.

“The community moves a little faster than government does. That’s just the nature of the beast,” Everett police Sgt. Robert Goetz said.

Eager to catch up, the police department is exploring the idea of creating a Twitter account, a blog and a Facebook page, he said.

Facebook is a social networking Web site where users can share photos and information on their personal pages, or write comments and post messages on their friends’ profiles.

Risdon recently created a Facebook group, too.

“I’ve always been one of those people trying to stay on the cutting edge of technology,” she said. “I want to get it really up and running.”

She wants to use the site to provide safety videos and updates on local fire-safety events.

One of the first agencies in Snohomish County to use Twitter, the city of Monroe’s Emergency Management Office kept an account going during January’s flooding. Short, frequent posts offered information such current river levels and how to report flood damage.

Everett police believe social media tools can help them get their message across, Goetz said. They plan to post crime-prevention tips and alert people about what is happening in their neighborhoods. But that’s not as easy as it seems, Goetz said. The department first must work out rules on what exactly can and can’t be posted and address security issues.

Some law enforcement agencies already are there.

With 384 updates, the Boston Police Department last month had an impressive Twitter following of 2,600 people. “Please make way for ambulance,” read one recent tweet, followed by the address and a brief description of a blocking accident.

Seattle Police Department launched a Twitter account but still is learning the ropes, spokesman Mark Jamieson said. The public information team likely will be responsible for writing posts and handling the account, he said.

For those who want more information than can be crammed into the 140 characters, the department’s Twitter account will serve as a gateway to its Web site, where a lot more information can be found, Jamieson said. “It doesn’t replace what we are doing. It’s an enhancement.”

The Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office doesn’t plan to explore social media anytime soon, spokeswoman Rebecca Hover said. However, people are successfully using the sheriff’s Web site.

The Web site features an interactive map of registered sex offenders in the county. You can zoom in on a specific area and click on a dot showing an offender’s general location. The offender’s name and photo and a description of the offense will pop up on-screen.

People appreciate having such up-to-date information accessible, Hover said. “We wish they’d also use the educational information we provide on our Web site. But that’s not as popular, unfortunately,” she said.

People can submit anonymous tips, traffic complaints and file some types of police reports through the sheriff’s Web site, too.

The swine flu outbreak has sent hundreds of people clicking on a Facebook page for Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management, County Executive Aaron Reardon said.

The county used Twitter account as an extra tool.

“There was not a better resource that we had than those two,” Reardon said.

Agencies should try to provide people with the most updated information they can, said Travis Phelps, a spokesman for the Washington State Department of Transportation.

The state transportation department has been “tweeting” for more than a year and also has a Facebook page. The two are invaluable for covering storms, providing traffic alerts and getting the word out during the construction season, Phelps said. The Web sites also allow for faster and communication than e-mail.

For example, if something isn’t working, people will often provide feedback quickly in the way of a tweet, he said. “It kind of makes the government agency a little more human.”

Katya Yefimova: 425-339-3452, kyefimova@heraldnet.com.

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