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That tweet you hear could be a storm warning from Pa.'s emergency management

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Friday, July 26, 2013, 11:22 p.m.
 

State emergency management officials plan to start using Twitter to issue alerts about storms, road closings and other incidents, following the lead of several Western Pennsylvania counties that tweet such information.

“We realize that social media can be a great tool for directly informing the public during emergencies,” said Cory Angell, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, or PEMA.

PEMA will tweet information that it verifies as correct, Angell said.

Allegheny County, however, tweets information as it comes in to the 911 center, verified or not.

“During emergencies such as storms or vehicle accidents, it's more important to quickly let people know about areas to avoid, rather than (verify) if every detail is correct,” said Amie Downs, county spokeswoman.

That means some information might be wrong, such as a report during a heavy storm on July 16. The county tweeted that lightning struck a woman along Grubbs Road in McCandless and that emergency medical technicians were treating her.

McCandless officials told the Tribune-Review no such thing happened. Lightning hit the ground near a woman who was exercising in North Park, but she was not injured, they said.

Downs said the county updates or corrects tweets if it gets additional information from first responders, but that is not a priority.

Government agencies that put out wrong information, even unknowingly, run the risk of losing the public's trust, said Jerry Shuster, a professor of political communication at the University of Pittsburgh.

“People consider the government an official source,” he said. “So if the information being disseminated turns out to be false or inaccurate, people can begin to question an agency's credibility.”

Allegheny County has nearly 6,000 followers on Twitter. It began posting tweets about storms and other emergencies in October.

It's not the only agency posting information from 911 dispatches.

Sue Griffith, public information officer for Fayette County Emergency Management Agency, which has 684 Twitter followers, said much of the information the agency posts about closed roads, downed wires and other damage from storms or accidents comes from calls to the 911 center.

“If a first responder reports back with different information, we update it,” she said. “But we don't go through the process of checking the information.”

Wes Hill, director of Beaver County's 911 center, doesn't tweet such information to the account's 519 followers, though he posts National Weather Serivce alerts.

“I'm real concerned about putting information out there that I have no way of knowing is correct,” Hill said.

Emergency centers in Westmoreland, Washington, Armstrong and Lawrence counties have Twitter accounts but each has fewer than 50 followers.

Jon Peha, a professor in engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, said governments' use of social media during emergencies is relatively new and users are learning how to make it effective.

“They don't want to be causing confusion or panic by putting something out that might not be accurate,” he said. “Then again, they don't want to wait too long and not get the information out in time for it to be useful.”

Peha suggested government agencies post disclaimers when information isn't verified.

Tony LaRussa is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7987 or tlarussa@tribweb.com.

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