Following a recent terrorist incident, fifteen people have been confirmed missing by family and friends following the attack that killed 22. First responders were among the 59 injured in the incident.
Desperate parents and friends have been searching frantically for loved ones following the terrorist incident at the Manchester Arena on Monday night.
Sixteen hours post-incident, a mother anxiously seeking communication from her 15-year old daughter told reporters “I can’t get through to her. I’ve called the hospitals, I’ve called all the places, the hotels where people say that children have been taken. I’ve called the police. There’s no news, I’ve just got to wait. I’m waiting at home just in case she turns up here. Her dad is actually in Manchester looking for her. I’ve got friends out looking for her, I’ve got people I don’t even know out looking for her.”
This incident reminds those responsible for planning and responding to emergencies of the necessity to ensure families are communicated with through a proceduralized and refined process. Beyond the civilian population, the same fundamentals of crisis communication are required for workers’ families during an industrial incident.
Centralized Accountability and Notification to Families
During the Manchester incident, worried parents and friends of victims of the incident have been taking to social media, uploading photos and appealing for information on victims that have not made contact to indicate their safety.
The large number of appeals for missing loved ones through social media outlets emphasizes the need for a centralized authority to track the accountability of both civilians and first responders following an incident, intentional or accidental.
During a sudden industrial incident such as a fire or explosion, where a site is evacuated suddenly, managing accountability and related communication to families is critical. It is unacceptable given the planning and communication tools that currently exist, that families are left in the dark for long periods of time, often worried needlessly about relatives who are not injured or lost, but are on the run following the chaos of evacuation.
At an industrial site, an accountability system with centralized authority should be implemented in advance, to ensure that when an incident occurs, there is a notification system and plan in place for responder and civilian accountability.
Knowing the location and condition of all personnel and responders at an emergency scene is a difficult task at the best of times and can become nearly impossible without the proper policies, equipment and discipline. A comprehensive Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) alone will not guarantee proper implementation or compliance. Thorough training, equipment, technology, and consistent enforcement of a centralized authority for accountability would help ensure the known whereabouts of individuals should disaster strike.
During an incident, once civilians or workers who are truly missing are identified, refined systems ensure that a responsible person within the responding agency contacts family members directly to ensure an open line of communication during the search and identification process. Often, family members can either be visited in person, or in a long-duration incident they can come to a pre-designated reception area.
Much work is needed to ensure corporations, government, and responders can be interoperable with the civilian population early on in the incident.
The use of Facebook during the Manchester incident offers an early glimpse of future state technology that, with interoperability refinement, will serve to minimize chaos and the suffering of families during crisis.
Facebook Safety Check
The Facebook Safety Check feature allows users to connect with friends and family during times of crisis. Originally, the tool had to be manually activated by the social media giant. However, following criticism of the feature only being activated in western countries, Facebook switched to a system where the feature is automatically triggered by posts. When Facebook receives an alert that an incident has happened it checks local users’ posts and, if it sees a spike in activity, activates Safety Check.
Safety Check relies on user activity to automatically trigger alerts, tracking keywords indicating danger like “earthquake,” “shooting” or “explosion” in concentrated areas, creating a global crisis reporting system. Facebook generally selects a city-level location, based on IP2Geo prediction algorithms similar to those used by Google, cities listed on user profiles, user location (if enabled), internet use location, and content of posts. If enough people in an affected area post about an incident, Safety Check is automatically activated, creating a dynamic and instant geoindex. The Facebook Safety Check feature asks people in the area of the incident if they are safe, and publicly marks them as such if they indicated that they are, allowing users to see which of their friends have marked themselves safe, invite more friends to Safety Check, and find or give help. This is particularly useful at incidents where emergency systems in cell networks can limit call volumes to keep lines of communication open for emergency responders, making it difficult or impossible to get through by phone.
Further to accountability through the Safety Check, the “Community Help” feature on the incident’s page on Facebook can be, and has been, used by those close to the crisis to offer food, transportation, and lodging for those affected by the incident.
Social media can be an effective way to let loved ones know you’re safe. According to a 2012 Red Cross report, 76 percent of people said they would use social media to check for information during an incident.
The work of Facebook in this area is interesting and a good example of ingenuity that has the potential to eliminate a long standing problem. Twitter has yet to answer the bell on this area of social responsibility. Much work is needed in this area to ensure standardization, interoperability, and integration into the Incident Command System and Emergency Operation Centres.
American Red Cross. 2012. More Americans Using Mobile Apps in Emergencies: Red Cross poll shows social media and apps motivate people to prepare.
Facebook. 2017. Facebook Safety Check. Retrieved from: https://www.facebook.com/
Firefighting in Canada. 2008. Head count: Is your accountability program up to PAR?