Is there a risk involved when emergency services communicate warnings via social media?

Listen to this discussion from ABC’s Radio National program, “Australia talks”

What are the legal issues? If people expect to be able to access communications via twitter and facebook does that give rise to a legal obligation to do so? And what if people expect to communicate by these tools – what happens to the person who sends a text to 000 or a tweet to #ambulancensw but no-one comes?  Do community expectations give rise to legal obligations and should they?  And agencies must not make the mistake of thinking that online/social media is the solution.  Many people will access information online but many will still require direct access (phone calls and door knocking) and information by more traditional means (in particular radio).  Should emergency services move to the online world to meet expectations or put out publicity that if you want help you telephone 000 (not text that number) and listen to the radio?

There is no clear or definitive answer to these questions but we may expect them to be become significant legal issues.

Just recently the ACT Emergency Services Agency was criticised over its use of text and telephone warnings (you can read the official report here) including sending text messages with spelling mistakes. (According to the report, the mistakes were due to spelling words phonetically, that is as they sound, so that the computer that was making the telephone calls to read the message).  But it’s not that long ago Royal Commissions and post event inquiries were making calls to install radios into fire trucks and there is a recurring message in after action reviews to improve fire ground communication.  Communication is always problematic and the technology, ranging from radios to social media, is new and imperfect (I received a text message the other day, 8 hours after it was sent and that was with no emergency).  People may expect ‘instant communication’ but the reality is that, during high pressure emergencies, that is hard if not impossible to achieve.  Again that raises the legal question of should, and how, are community expectations translated into legal obligations and duties?

Michael Eburn

7 October 2011