Getting life-saving information could be a finger swipe away.
Local emergency responders are using social media accounts to reach out to the public, and it’s changing the way communities deal with emergencies.
The Gainesville Police Department has been on Facebook and Twitter since 2009, but Ben Tobias, GPD public spokesperson, said the two accounts really started being utilized about three years ago.
“We’ve learned just by using social media that it is the fastest way to get information into the community,” he said. “People are always on their phones.”
ROBBERY UPDATE: 3 of 4 suspects in custody. Stolen items recovered. K9 tracking 4th suspect now. Call 911 if you see anyone suspicious.
— Gainesville Police (@GainesvillePD) October 9, 2015
Tobias said what really put @GainesvillePD on the map was when an officer gave Ted Spiker, a University of Florida professor and chair of the Department of Journalism, a jaywalking ticket.
He said it started a positive dialogue between their respective Twitter accounts that resulted in a large increase in followers for the GPD.
“We ended up with a mutual respect for one another,’’ Tobias said.
Lauren Lettelier, public information officer for the Marion County Sheriff’s Office, has found success with Facebook.
“We have solved so many crimes through Facebook, it’s amazing,” she said. “You’d be surprised who would turn in their family members because of something they saw on Facebook for money.’’
Lettelier said Facebook has been particularly helpful in finding wanted individuals. A “Turn’ Em In Tuesday” post is put out every week. She said detectives have been able to track down wanted individuals sometimes within the hour of his or her picture being posted on Facebook.
“It’s an amazing tool,” she said.
Lettelier said Marion County Sheriff’s Office’s posts reach 300,000 people per week, on average. MCSO also shares local crime reports that residents may not find on traditional media.
“The news media, they don’t cover these small stories we have every day,’’ she said, adding that these stories shared on Facebook keep the community safer by raising awareness of local crime.
MCSO’s Facebook page isn’t all serious business. Pictures of Marion County Public Safety doing Zumba to raise awareness for breast cancer and stories of MCSO volunteers doing good in the community can also be found on the page.
“It allows us to show people what we’re doing that you wouldn’t usually see on the news,’’ Lettelier said.
Andrew Selepak, the director of the UF’s Social Media Master’s Online program, agrees it is important for emergency responders to engage with communities on social media.
“It’s great for them to be on there for others to then retweet this information, to share this information, and then it has a much stronger, valuable aspect for the public,’’ he said.
Selepak said emergency responders’ engagement on social media can also help their positive perception in the community.
“Social media’s all about engagement, so by being active on there you can engage with the community,” he said. “They can develop a different perspective on what local law enforcement is like.”
But for some, social media still isn’t always the most important way to interact with their audience
Jeff Huffman, WRUF Weather’s chief meteorologist, thinks there needs to be more than one type of engagement for information to effectively reach the public.
“I believe that social media should never take the place of traditional media,’’ he said. “They’re not mutually exclusive. There’s more ways to reach the same audience and more convenient ways to reach them.’’
WRUF Weather, whose Twitter account has more than 4,000 followers, uses more than just social media when the Gainesville community needs to know about severe weather.
— UF Weather Center (@UFWeather) October 9, 2015
“It all depends on the time of day and the day of the week as to how we approach messaging,’’ he said.
For breaking news, WRUF Weather uses Twitter throughout the day, radio during the morning and afternoon rush hours and television in the evening.
Tobias said people aren’t watching the news as much, so the police department needed to find another way to communicate with the residents it protects.
“If we’re not inserting ourselves into their feeds, then we’re not doing anything at all,’’ he said.
Here are the accounts to follow to receive the most important and up-to-date community information: