Austin-Travis County EMS uses Facebook to alert users of unsafe situations

Lauren Girgis

Facebook is introducing a new tool to alert users about unsafe situations in their area, and Austin-Travis County EMS was one of the first government agencies to beta test it.

The new tool allows ATCEMS to make their local alert posts on the website more visible to users in a specific geographic location. Facebook reached out to ATCEMS in December 2018 for them to be one of over 350 public safety agencies in the United States to beta test this new service. ATCEMS has used the tool for eight months, mostly for weather-related alerts such as heat and fog advisories. 

"It targets the users that are affected by whatever we're talking about, whatever alert we're sending in that particular geographical area, whether it's the specific area or the entire area that we serve," said Christa Stedman, ATCEMS deputy public information officer. "It lets us decide, 'Do we want to give this to our entire service area ’ (or) select a particular town within Travis County?' It lets us get a message out there efficiently and to a very broad audience."

Through Facebook's tool, ATCEMS can reach more people and receive more interaction with their posts, including shares, reactions and comments, said Darren Noak, ATCEMS deputy public information officer.

"For example, when you talk about tornado watches and warnings or thunderstorm watches and warnings, those typically cover the entire county," Noak said. "But a tornado warning or flood warning might be more geographically specific."

Keri Stephens, associate professor in the Department of Communications Studies, said the tool is able to target messages at users in specific areas by utilizing their mobile phone's location services.  

"A privacy concern is there, (but) what my research has found is that a lot of times when people's lives are at risk, they either forget or they don't care about their privacy concerns because they're desperate to get information," Stephens said. "We do consciously need to make people aware that privacy should be considered in all circumstances."

Stephens said that another social media app, Nextdoor, has been providing a similar service for several years now. Nextdoor connects people with their neighbors to inform each other on about their neighborhood, including babysitting gigs, local event planning and safety alerts, according to Nextdoor's website. 

"It's not like this is all that new and different of a thing," Stephens said. "It's just one more place where people can get information and that happens to be through Facebook."

Rocio Morin, a sociology and public policy junior, said she thinks the University releases timely safety alerts but the Facebook tool would come in handy for off-campus students. 

"I'm not really (sure) about (Facebook) knowing my location, but I do live in Riverside, so especially late at night whenever I'm going home, it would be nice," Morin said.

Noak said the new tool will be made available to all government agencies on Tuesday. ATCEMS plans to continue using it to send out notifications, Stedman said.

"We have the ability to use it as we see fit, and we found it tremendously helpful," Stedman said.