Australia — In the age of the smartphone, most Australians today carry a device every day that has the potential to provide vital information that could make the difference between life and death in the case of a serious bushfire.
Social media is playing a bigger part in people’s lives and in the lead up to the bushfire season in Western Australia some may be wondering how they can best keep informed.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics half of all Australians had access to the internet on their mobile phone in June 2013.
Social media platform Twitter, available via SMS and online, has proven its worth so well during emergencies that Western Australia’s Department of Fire and Emergency Services is considering using specially designed software that monitors eyewitness accounts on Twitter to map and respond to bushfires in WA.
Twitter can be used in a number of ways such as alerting people of potential bushfires, providing a place to share information about what is happening on the ground and in different areas surrounding a fire, sending vital information about the location of people close to fires and sharing local conditions.
How it works
For those yet to jump on the bandwagon: Twitter is a publicly available social network which works around the basis of people contributing 140 character posts referred to as tweets.
People’s tweets are shared with a network of people known as followers.
Curtin University lecturer in the department of internet studies Tama Leaver said with more people using the internet on their phone or carrying tablet devices such as ipads with an internet or phone connection, there was greater connectivity and information-sharing capabilities in case of emergencies.
“In emergency situations around Australia, Twitter has proved useful,” Dr Leaver said.
He said one of the best ways to find information on an emergency event or share information about an event on Twitter was by using hashtags.
A hashtag is a word or phrase preceded by a hash sign (#), used to categorise messages into different topic.
“The best thing is to follow whatever hashtags are picked up and used by the emergency services, when something is just breaking people use their own but then something like #WAfires will kickoff and once you know the official hashtag, that’s the best one to follow,” Dr Leaver said.
He said it was common sense that sharing information between a wider community could be useful.
“One thousand people sharing information is better than one,” Dr Leaver said.
He said that Twitter was much better for this type of thing than Facebook.
“The main point of difference is that Twitter is more effective than Facebook because Twitter is public, Facebook – that might be useful from a small community level.”
Dr Leaver said anecdotal evidence proved twitter was useful especially in coordinating responses on a local level.
Don’t believe everything you read
Dr Leaver said people using Twitter need to be aware that sometimes people used Twitter in a malicious way or accidentally share incorrect information.
“It’s important to follow the official authorities to see if they can confirm or dispute information on Twitter,” he said.
“The main issue with things like Twitter is a kind of trust.
“On Twitter if you know the users and or have time to look at the person’s profile, it might be useful.”
Dr Leaver said before re-tweeting other people’s tweets people should check the credentials of the twitter account that the information came from so they are not sharing incorrect information.
He said people should make sure the account had been around longer than a day or two, that the account had at least a couple of dozen followers and that the person the account belonged to lived in the relevant area or had reason to be tweeting about it.
Dr Leaver said in WA the use of Twitter during bushfires may not be as effective in rural areas as in more metropolitan areas because of coverage and connection issues.
“It may not be the best thing to help if you are stuck in the bush, local radio might be more useful but saying that, anyone who can get info out and warn others is useful as well.”
First hand information
Dr Lever said some matters often made it to social media without being reported through the official methods.
“I do think people are often hesitant to ring triple zero if they see a fire, which works against getting fires, people might tweet instead,” he said.
“Saying that, I’d deeply encourage people to ring the authorities to report these things.
“Never will there be a replacement for the official side of things.”
“For the most part mobile coverage is pretty good but keep in mind power lines can come down in fires and interrupt coverage
“Any tool people have to provide information about where they are in an emergency situation is incredibly useful.”
Dr Leaver said people could make use of the GPS function on their phone to add their GPS coordinates in tweets to provide people with their exact location
“Usually you leave that information out but in an emergency situation it can be helpful.”
He said people could also include GPS coordinates using a function when taking photos.
The official line
Department of Fire and Emergency Services acting director of media and corporate communications Michelle Neil said DFES would encourage people to use social media responsibly, avoid exaggeration that may cause panic, and verify information obtained on social media with official sources of information.
“People are encouraged to use a variety of sources of information during emergencies and not rely on any one source,” she said.
DFES capability command deputy commissioner Steve Fewster said DFES was considering the use of software that monitors eyewitness accounts on Twitter to map and respond to bushfires here in Western Australia.
The New South Wales Rural Fire Service used the software developed by the CSIRO, called Emergency Situation Awareness, during the recent spate of blazes in the state.
“DFES continuously monitors developments in technologies that may assist in responding to emergencies and is currently reviewing the possible application of the CSIRO software,” Mr Fewster said.
“DFES appreciates the role of Western Australians in responding to incidents, and encourages people to continue to report a fire by calling triple zero.
“DFES monitors social media, but does not rely on social media reports or specific software.”
He said while social media can be a good tool to be alerted to, or gain information about an emergency, “DFES would encourage people to seek information from a variety of sources during an emergency and verify information obtained on social media.”
“It is important to verify information with an official source, as confusion can arise when information passed among the community is out of date.
“DFES encourages people to use a variety of sources of information during an emergency, in order to stay up to date, and not rely on any one source.
“Social media provides another avenue for DFES to keep the community informed about current and developing emergencies, as well as allowing the community to share information amongst each other.
“Social media can assist with getting information to more people, faster and easier than before.”
Official alerts on the DFES Twitter account can be re-tweeted by members of the community, but people need to be mindful of the date and time the alert is issued.
Mr Fewster said circumstances could change quickly during an incident and distributing old information can be dangerous.
“People are encouraged to build community networks and share information with neighbours and friends, through phone calls, texts or social media, but it is important that people pass on true and accurate information,” he said.
Official alerts are available through a number of different channels including the DFES website, emergency information line; 1300 657 209, RSS feeds, apps such as DisasterWatch and EmergencyAus, traditional media outlets and on Twitter via @dfes_wa.