With Elerts, Emergency Broadcasts Go Digital

A new app allows first responders to issue alerts to citizens, and for users to make reports about accidents and even find each other after a disaster.

We've gotten used to experiencing disasters through the kaleidoscopic imagery of mobile devices--and increasingly, emergency responders are using the social media to gather intelligence and alert the public. These trends come together in Elerts, an app devised by a Massachusetts-based startup. Through free apps for Android and iOS, users post reports, broadcast their location, and receive action alerts, while municipal agencies can collect and filter information from eyewitnesses and shuttle them to relevant police, fire, and disaster services.

It will be fascinating to see whether Elerts is effective. The company has deep expertise at its command; founder Chris Russo is a deputy fire chief in Massachusetts. But even as emergency services embrace the social media, safety officials struggle to hold the digital public sphere at bay. A spate of controversial arrests of citizens witnessing police incidents--most recently the arrest of Emily Good in Rochester, New York, who was detained while shooting video from her front lawn while police conducted a traffic stop--express the ambivalence public safety officers feel about scrutiny in the networked age.

Elerts is reminiscent of the old Civil Defense system, the plane-spotters of World War II that gave way to the fallout shelters and duck-and-cover drills of the Cold War. These public-safety measures kept disaster in the public consciousness, though whether they would have been effective in the event of a nuclear exchange is very doubtful. Whether Elerts will prove to be a more practical way to involve the public in disaster response, or a kind of virtual, mobile air-raid shelter--a social placebo for emergency preparedness--we'll have remain vigilant.

[Image: Flickr user jamiehladky]

[Hat tip Riva Richmond at the New York Times]

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