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May 29th, 2013
Expert Calls for Rapid Social Media Response from Emergency Services

International emergency services are using this information to enhance their own intelligence and develop a more detailed understanding of the situation on the ground during a crisis.

The approach has helped guide rescue teams during the Japan Tsunami and in the US during Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina and the recent Oklahoma twister.

Speaking to more than 250 personnel at a conference today, former Director of Rural Volunteering and Support with the Queensland Fire and Rescue Service Kerrie Purcell has urged Australia to implement the same technology before the next natural disaster hits.

“This technology is available in Australia and there is certainly a need for it, we now just need a commitment from our emergency services,” Ms Purcell said

“First responders need access to rapid information to react quickly and appropriately during emergencies and there is no way to get information faster than from eyewitness accounts.

“Members of the community already use social media to upload and exchange enormous amounts of information during disasters – such as a photo of a bridge that is damaged, or video footage of flood waters rising.

“This is vital, near real-time information that can be used to bolster in-house disaster intelligence such as rescue infrastructure maps, weather patterns or video feeds from traffic cameras.

“There is still a place for more traditional information gathering, but for many people the web is becoming the first port of call during a disaster.”

Ms Purcell is one of Australia’s most senior emergency services specialists, with more than thirty years’ experience in the public safety sector. She is currently the Managing Director of Lacuna Resolve Consultants.

Ms Purcell said assessing the legitimacy of social media feeds had traditionally been a challenge, but GIS technology could help verify this crowd-sourced data by accessing the time and location of the post.

“If a large amount of tweets are clustered within a narrow timeframe and in a certain area, we can be a lot more confident about their veracity,” Ms Purcell said.

“Once verified, information becomes official intelligence and emergency managers can use it to conduct rescue operations, assess damage to critical infrastructure, and prioritise medical assistance.”

Josh Venman, emergency management expert with GIS giant, Esri Australia, said the technology can also be used by emergency services to push back to the public.

“GIS technology enables emergency services organisations to publish their own intelligence for the community – via the universal language of maps,” Mr Venman said.

“Location can be a critical factor in creating context and ultimately situational awareness for those trapped in a disaster, so providing access to maps of evacuation routes or the path of a flood or fire could ultimately save lives.

“Data from other organisations such as the Red Cross or Department of Transport can also be included on the one mapping site to create a single location for important disaster information.”

Ms Purcell and Mr Venman will be hosting presentations at the Australian and New Zealand Disaster and Emergency Management Conference in Brisbane on Wednesday and Thursday respectively.