Four agencies are launching a Twitter account with the goal of providing immediate emergency information to residents

Starting this week, Crook County residents who use Twitter will be able to "follow" and receive immediate and timely information from four Crook County agencies.

The Prineville Police Department (PPD), Crook County Sheriff's Office (CCSO), Crook County Fire and Rescue (CCFR), and the Crook County Health Department (CCHD) have worked together to create a Twitter account named "Crook County 911."

Twitter is the social media site that allows users to send messages, or "tweets," that are 140 characters or less per message. In their recent IPO (Initial Public Offering) filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Twitter claims to have 218 million active users through June 2013.

Anyone with a Twitter account can immediately begin to "follow" this new account intended to alert and inform residents about emergency situations happening in Crook County.

Captain Michael Boyd with the PPD has been acting as the coordinator on the project for about two years.

"This is so important because people get information from sources now that were not available years ago. We've been working on this for a couple of years now. My job was to go around and get consensus among the four partner groups."

Boyd provided an example of how, in previous years, emergency information was delivered to the general public.

“If there was a big emergency, and several agencies were at the scene, when we finally start to get it under control, someone would leave to go write a press release for the media. There was always a delay in getting info out to the public. The Twitter feed will enable us to get the word out immediately at the scene, and as a result keep people safer, assuage their fears, and if necessary, point them in the right direction for more information.”

Karen Yeargain, Public Health Emergency Preparedness Coordinator and a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) with the CCHD, understands very well how Twitter will aid the timely distribution of emergency information.

“The common story you hear about Twitter is an earthquake hits one side of town, a person tweets about it, and someone on the other side of town immediately lifts their coffee cup.”

James Wilson, Internet Technology Manager with the City of Prineville, has provided technical advice and support throughout the project. Wilson also understands how valuable Twitter will be to the overall communication mix with residents.

He said they have the reverse 911 system, a public safety communications system used to communicate with groups of people in a defined geographic area using a database of telephone numbers and associated addresses, which can be used to deliver recorded emergency notifications to a selected set of telephone service subscribers.

“But, it has its limitations,” Wilson continued. “In the recent past, we needed to contact about 90 people about a local incident. Out of the 90, we got to 12 people with land lines. That told us that we were reaching very small numbers of people.”

“In a county the size of ours, emergency communication has to involve a little bit of everything — print media, television, Twitter, phone, radio, websites, etc.,” added Wilson.

Yeargain agrees.

“Twitter has become a method that’s more and more used by public agencies to get messaging out to the public. Using the Twitter feed is just one way to do it — but it’s an important one.”

Dave Dethman, Emergency Manager for Crook County and a Corporal with the CCSO, serves as the Chair of the Crook County Emergency Preparedness Committee. Having worked with many agencies in the community, he’s thrilled that this project is coming to fruition.

“We’ve been meeting every month for several years, discussing what-if events, responses, etc. Being able now to reach a mass amount of people with critical information during an emergency is going to be a great benefit. Reverse 911 works, but it’s really slow. Twitter is a new tool to put in our work belt.”

One challenge that the four agencies faced was finding a common communication protocol that was acceptable. That task was handled by Wilson.

“We had to make sure everyone was going to be comfortable with the messaging protocol. In the beginning, probably 90 percent of the time, our 911 dispatchers are the ones who are going to be ‘tweeting’ information. But all the agencies will be tweeting sooner than later.”

Boyd credits Wilson for putting together all the technical information and creating the Twitter account.

“James has been a genius figuring out all these things. He’s really made it simple for all of us to understand and use.”

Boyd summed up the benefits of the new Twitter feed with an example.

“This is really a ground-up operation. An officer at a car crash can get on his smart phone or mobile display terminal and get the critical information out right from the scene. As fast as someone can tweet, that’s how fast the information will be distributed to the public.”

Success of the new Twitter feed is easily measured.

“Success will be measured by the number of ‘followers’ we get,” said Boyd.

Boyd is encouraging everyone to sign up for a Twitter account, and then follow the Crook County 911 feed on their computer or smartphone.

“It’s really easy to sign up. I did it recently and I’m no computer expert. It was very easy.”

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