Emergency Twitters: How Is Your Department Using It?

This is the first in a series of occasional articles from FireGeezer.com about how some fire and rescue departments are using Twitter to enhance their operations.

IN EARLY SEPTEMBER OF LAST YEAR THE ENTIRE AREA AROUND GALVESTON BAY, TEXAS, was girding up for what was looking like a certain hit from Hurricane Ike that was heading their way.

Tracking models showed that it was likely to make landfall at Baytown, just east of Houston. Baytown has a population of about 68,000 and is served by a fire department housed in five stations.


As Ike was identified as a possible risk, the city began making preparations for the storm. The area is prone to periodic direct hits from hurricanes and they have tested procedures already in place. The Baytown Fire Dept. assigned Lt. Patrick Mahoney of the Training and Safety Office to be their communications liasion during the storm.

Lt. Mahoney was recently getting familiar with Twitter and put his imagination to work as he set up the departmental communications contingency plans. Knowing that there will be a lengthy period where there will be no utilities service after the storm wall hits, he devised an alternative procedure to communicate between stations when all the phones and electricity are down.

Banking on the probability that there will be at least one (and probably several) FF’s in each station who have an iPhone or Blackberry-type PDA with them, he set up a Twitter account for each station plus one for Administration. The pages were set up to be blocked to everybody except the BFD personnel.*

He was also taking advantage of the fact that cellphone towers have their own emergency backup generators, and if they weren’t blown over (unlikely since they were built with hurricane winds in mind), then they would always have access to the internet.

During the course of the storm each station was entering vital information about what was going on in their areas. Lt. Mahoney describes it as “situational awareness” reporting where they would post updates on which structures were gone or any problems that affected fire operations and responses. As the eye was over them, they could get out for a quick reconnaissance and update each other through their Twitter pages.

baytown- twitter-page

This method was used continually until the electric service was restored. His description of the performance of the Tweeting was “durable.” As long as they could get on the internet, they were in business.

As a side note, when the FD went into storm operations, the three shifts were combined into two shifts, one on and one off, and the City turned a middle school into an employees’ shelter where all off-duty fire, police and other city services were housed during the operation. Their families were all evacuated from the area.

We believe that this is one of the earliest uses of Twitter by an emergency service agency. By passing this information along, we hope that others can take the germ of the idea and adapt it to your own situations.

* Twitter pages can be blocked from public viewing by going to the Settings page and checking the “Protect my updates” box.

Baytown Fire Department WEBSITE.


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Comment by FireGeezer on February 19, 2009 at 10:04pm
After checking....Baytown's cell towers ran continuously. They have never looked to see what powers them, but when you consider they are in the heart of the country's largest collection of petro-chemical refineries, it's safe to say that they are fed by piped in natural gas.
Comment by DoubleH..Harry on February 18, 2009 at 11:24pm
In my retirement part-time job I work with a guy doing tower work and most towers have back up power,BUT most have a finite fuel supply whether it is a propane tank(always fresh) or diesel fuel.The ones fortune enough to be looked near civilization might be hooked to natural gas lines and have an infinite supply of fuel,thus ensuring more reliable communications .
Comment by FireGeezer on February 18, 2009 at 10:42pm
Each cell tower has its own backup generator. So if one breaks down, you have a good chance to catch another one. I believe that all of them worked continuously, but I will check with BFD and find out for sure.
Comment by BillySFCVFD on February 18, 2009 at 10:35pm

Thanks for the reply. I'm a firm believer in using all available assets but not relying on any one alone. Old school sometimes never fails. Sounds like guys are exploring new areas of commo and the power of the net is endless, thanks to Al Gore.haha. Like Jason asked, how long did the cell backup power last?
Comment by FireGeezer on February 18, 2009 at 5:27pm

In this instance the entire population had been evacuated. Hence, nobody using the local cell towers. If anything, they were underburdened. The BFD knew this going in and it was part of their planning for that specific incident.

Except for a very short period of time, their emergency dispatch radios were operational. The Twitter pages were used as a means for intra-departmental sharing of information. By using internet sites, they could post information that would sit there and could be retrieved at any time, opposed to a radio message that has no residual life. It worked.
Comment by BillySFCVFD on February 18, 2009 at 3:51pm
I entered the 21st century on Jan 1st 2000 so I know a little about technology for an "old guy". When the power is knocked out along with the land lines then the cell towers get clogged up with calls since it is the only commo available to Joe public. Using Twitter is another tool for emergency services to use but if you use cell towers, to access the internet, that are already busy then where is the advantage? I like the ham radio idea and has been used for years as the Military Affiliate Radio System (MARS) in emergencies. Heck even a CB radio with limited range and privacy would seem more reliable then over burdened cell towers. TCSS
Comment by Jason Koontz on February 18, 2009 at 12:55pm
We used something like this during a storm, but we found that the emergency power units at the cell towers around us are at most good for 24 hours. What saved us was the local HAM radio club. They all had radios mounted in their cars, and talked to each other, and in turn dispatched us, since their radios can hit Australia, and ours couldn't make it across the district. After that, most of the volunteers became licensed by the FCC as HAM operators, and we mounted HAM radios in every station, with a deal in place with the club to man them during a crisis. So far its been the greatest thing we could possibly have done! It increased our cooperation with the community, we do training together, and honestly they know more about radios and radio transmissions than any of us ever will.
Comment by Art "ChiefReason" Goodrich on February 18, 2009 at 11:27am
Since I don't have a text feature on my phone, I signed up for Tweeter instead.
I'd like to have Twitter, though. Maybe if I beg hard enough...
Comment by Mike Schlags (Captain Busy) Retd on February 17, 2009 at 11:30pm
Dear FireGeezer... Talk about feeling old... I had to ask my kids what Twitter was. I look forward to learning more about this thanks to you your post. Good work buddy. Keep em' coming!

Comment by Bobbie K. on February 17, 2009 at 10:24pm
Sounds like this worked out very good. When hurricanes head this way ( Louisiana) we man most of our stations 24-7 and I know this past year when Ike (and other bad storms) came through we lost power and what was even worse radio communications went out as well cause the tower had some problems.

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