The Grand Rapids Shootings and the Social Media Future for First Responders

First Responders and Social Media

As the horrible events of July 7, 2011 unfolded in Grand Rapids and a troubled Roderick Dantzler murdered seven people including two children, people around the world skipped the news media altogether and watched/listened live (via live streams of the police scanner – at one point 14,000 people were logged in).  It was a tragic example of the amazing technological power the average person wields, which [to paraphrase FDR/Spiderman’s Uncle Ben] “comes with great responsibility.”

What I observed made me think about the role social media will play in the future of society when events like these occur.  Here’s how my night went:

2:41 p.m. | July 7, 2011

I first became aware of the shooting through alerts on my feed reader.  I use Google Reader for its ease, but also its portability; because it’s web-based, it’s available to me on any computer which is critical in emergency situations (in case I’m working elsewhere than my laptop, which has happened several times).  I also use Google Docs to store copies of crisis documents/manuals/instructions in case I need to retrieve those.

At this point, however details were sketchy.  It wasn’t for a couple of hours that it emerged that the suspect was still on the loose and that there were other related shootings pointing to a potential threat to the larger Grand Rapids community (kudos to the Grand Rapids Press which has cataloged the news as it was developing on their website).

This is not unlike the Virginia Tech shootings in which an initial report of a shooting off-campus turned out to have implications for the students on campus (something that was not known at the time).

6:17 p.m. | July 7, 2011

Two Facebook pages appear with details released about the suspect including a mug shot and description as well as information about the car he was driving; “We Need to Find Roderick Dantzler” and “Roderick Shonte Dantzler – Wanted for 7 Counts of Murder

6:22 p.m. | July 7, 2011

Shortly thereafter, I was contacted by members of Grand Rapids Community College’s emergency planning team as we were obligated under the Clery Act to send out a warning to students given the proximity of the shootings to campus and the fact that one of the victims had formerly attended GRCC.  As a result of the diligent work of the Communications and IT departments (as well as some of our tech-savvy faculty and instructional technologies staff) GRCC has a robust communications plan for crises that is highly redundant in case any of the various means fails.

Among the numerous means, that day it included:

  • Email (We send email to all employees, all students, and any member of the public that wishes to sign up for crisis alerts)
  • SMS Text Messaging (This capability has grown in popularity since 2005 when we debuted it, nearly 9,000 people receive text alerts from the college almost instantaneously wherever they are in the event of an emergency).
  • Social Media (The college manages presences on Facebook, MySpace and Twitter and posts alerts there as part of its process; these platforms offer something the broadcast ones do not – the opportunity for two-way communication and engagement.  This can be a valuable feature as it allows us to gather feedback on how our messages are being received and change or amplify them if needed).

12:05 a.m. | July 8, 2011

A message goes out to the GRCC community that the standoff has ended and the danger has subsided.

Unsurprisingly there’s already a very in-depth Wikipedia entry for the shootings that appears to still actively be under curation as details from this morning’s news have already made their way into the entry.

I hope police officers, dispatchers, fire fighters and medical staff like paramedics are receiving training in the paradigms of social media because they may end up being the unwilling spokespeople of their organizations at any given second.  Here are just a few concerns I thought of:

  • Mistakes made on the job will potentially be subject to more scrutiny (although given that most first responder agencies are already capturing/archiving work via dashboard cams and other recording devices which are subject to Freedom of Information requests, this isn’t necessarily new – it does accelerate the timeline by which it can be published).
  • At present, a careless comment on a radio won’t only find its way to a few ears listening synchronously to the broadcast – it could be perfectly preserved and syndicated for all the world to witness.
  • The two-way mass medium created by the Internet means that emergency professionals can also receive criticism (or praise) in real-time as a crisis is unfolding.  They can also respond to clarify and explain what is going on (though given the dire circumstances in most emergency situations, it’s not necessarily a good idea that they do so as it could be seen as engaging in a trivial act at a critical time).
  • We now have access to a wealth of social data about the victims and perpetrators of events like this.  Roderick Dantzler’s Facebook profile was found and a link to it tweeted during the crisis.  Law enforcement investigators and journalists have unprecedented access to background information (and new responsibilities in using it – like taking the time to understand the context of content that is published).
As social media continues to conquer a larger share of how humans communicate, I’m sure there’s probably a role within any emergency response organization for a designated social media public affairs officer.
One could see the value of someone whose job it is to quell rumors in real-time, give “official” endorsement to news reports, add the first response side of the story to the equation, answer questions, and even capitalize on positive sentiment (for example, there was a huge outpouring of support for the Grand Rapids Police Department for their handling that could have turned into an opportunity to let grateful residents know how they can help support the police and/or their families through a charitable contribution or other community action).
Suggested Reading: Apropos of this conversation, Clay Shirky just blogged about “Why we Need the New News Environment Needs to be Chaotic

One thought on “The Grand Rapids Shootings and the Social Media Future for First Responders

  1. Adrienne says:

    Would like to see your commentary on hashtags as they apply to the tweets of this night…appropriate and inappropriate ones. What you say is as important as how you sort it…they both send a message.


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