Facebook showcases emergency response tools in Texas

The tools are designed to help agencies communicate crucial information and send alerts during emergencies


Kara Carlson
Austin American-Statesman

AUSTIN, Texas — Facebook is turning to public safety officials as it develops safety and emergency response tools for users and departments to better communicate crucial information.

Facebook provided training and information on a number of these tools at an event this week in Austin, Texas for first responders, law enforcement and local government officials.

Austin-Travis County EMS is one of the agencies that has been beta testing a new Facebook tool called Local Alerts. (Photo/Austin-Travis County EMS Facebook)
Austin-Travis County EMS is one of the agencies that has been beta testing a new Facebook tool called Local Alerts. (Photo/Austin-Travis County EMS Facebook)

"We want to make sure there is a suite of products that are actually focused on crisis response and emergencies," said Ana Martinez, Facebook's Austin-based head of public policy and community engagement for the Southwest region. "These products are in place not only to help our community members that make up Facebook, but also our first responders to make sure they're deploying the proper information to people that need it."

For Facebook executives, privacy and security is always top of mind, Martinez said. The social media giant has been developing and testing tools that can be used as a community hub to share information before, during and after emergencies.

"In times of crisis, connection and building community is most important and these are the tools that allow us to do that," Martinez said.

Austin is where much of Facebook's law enforcement response team is headquartered, along with one of the company's hubs for testing safety tools. Facebook Law Enforcement manager Bridgette Arnold is based in Austin, and works as a go-between for Facebook and law enforcement.

"(The tools) help save lives. One of main missions is something like child safety or countering terrorism and enabling the capability through law enforcement to help do that," Arnold said. "It's one of our No. 1 priorities."

Tools range from those built specifically for first responders and local government to those for general safety. The Austin event also showed first responders how to take advantage of tools not specifically designed for public safety, such as Facebook Live.

"This was an opportunity to actually bring the product experts and communicate first hand so they can actually learn about the products and to get feedback (from first responders)," Martinez said.

Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services is one of a number of public safety departments that has been beta testing one of Facebook's newest tools, Local Alerts. Michael Benavides, public information officer for Austin-Travis County EMS, estimates his agency has used the tool at least 50 times since it began testing it in December.

"From a public safety standpoint, it's been a huge benefit for us to get information out quickly," Benavides said.

The agency has used it to alert Travis County Facebook users to everything from extreme weather to traffic. Benavides said since it began using the tool, engagement has gone up for the agency's page.

"A lot of community members have commented on it and they've thanked us for getting the information in advance and efficiently," Benavides said.

Officials can apply to join Local Alerts if they manage a city or county government page, fire/emergency services page or law enforcement page. Facebook recommends using the tool for events including an active shooter, road closure, traffic alerts, storm warning, flash flood warning, a change or suspension of services, blackout, missing person case, or criminal activity.

"Facebook really goes out of its way that users are safe, and that law enforcement knows how to use our tools to keep our users safe," Arnold said. "One terrorism event that's thwarted that's a win."

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©2019 Austin American-Statesman, Texas

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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