Red Cross: Web Users Increasingly Rely on Social Media to Seek Help in a Disaster

A new American Red Cross survey shows many Web users would turn to social media to seek help for themselves or others during emergencies – and they expect first responders to be listening.

The online survey asked 1,058 adults about their use of social media sites in emergency situations. It found that if they needed help and couldn’t reach 9-1-1, one in five would try to contact responders through a digital means such as e-mail, Web sites or social media. If Web users knew of someone else who needed help, 44 percent would ask other people in their social network to contact authorities, 35 percent would post a request for help directly on a response agency’s Facebook page and 28 percent would send a direct Twitter message to responders.

Disaster Response

Web users also have clear expectations about how first responders should be answering their requests. The survey showed that 69 percent said that emergency responders should be monitoring social media sites in order to quickly send help – and nearly half believe a response agency is probably already responding to any urgent request they might see.

The survey respondents also expected quick response to an online appeal for help – 74 percent expected help to come less than an hour after their tweet or Facebook post.

“The first and best choice for anyone in an emergency situation is to call 9-1-1,” said Gail McGovern, American Red Cross president and CEO. “But when phone lines are down or the 9-1-1 system is overwhelmed, we know that people will be persistent in their quest for help and use social media for that purpose.”

The Red Cross survey found that among Web users, social media sites are the fourth most popular source for emergency information, just behind television news, radio and online news sites. More Web users say they get their emergency information from social media than from a NOAA weather radio, government Web site or emergency text message system. One in five social media users also report posting eyewitness accounts of emergency events to their accounts.

“The social Web is creating a fundamental shift in disaster response – one that will ask emergency managers, government agencies and aid organizations to mix time-honored expertise with real-time input from the public,” McGovern said. “We need to work together to better respond to that shift.”

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