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.
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