Essays · Friendship

Considering Whether to Participate in the Facebook Safety Check

Another terror attack, another Facebook Safety Check activation. I first learned of it after the Paris attacks, and then saw articles questioning what would trigger it after (if I’m remembering correctly) an attack in a Middle Eastern nation that didn’t. That same criticism has come up at other times, sparking discussion around what defines an attack to the point that Facebook staff believe it requires a Safety Check. I could write an essay on that, but this post is about something different.

This time (after the London Bridge van and knife attack) I saw more than one person push back, saying that participating in the Facebook Safety Check took away from the real victims (London is, after all, huge, so someone might technically live in London but still be a 45 minute tube ride from London Bridge). I also saw some arguing that the action of activating it stoked fear, and gave the attackers the reaction they want. In fact, an article from the last London attack (the one on Westminster) had this to say:

“There is no doubt that for many Londoners the simple act of checking in that you were safe allayed the fears of far-off loved ones. But it also spread unnecessary worry about people who were simply nowhere near the affected area. The big question for Facebook is: when can a Safety Check make people feel less safe?”

Another friend shared a Facebook post that expressed “It’s a marketing/engagement gimmick masquerading as a public service. It’s cynical and manipulative.”

And I think those things can be true. But I also wanted to share a different perspective: that of an emergency manager.

Part of my day job involves planning for the response to a mass casualty or mass fatality incident.* Not the ‘rush in and stop the bleeding’ type of response; the stuff that comes after. The figuring out which hospitals people were taken to. The helping to sort out how many died. The determining the logistics of identifying the injured and deceased.

And, importantly, figuring out how to reunite these people with their families.

We do this in many ways, including setting up a call center. Through this center, people can report that someone they care about may have been involved in the incident. And this is where the Facebook Safety Check — and other programs, like the American Red Cross’s Safe and Well — can help. While of course you’ll let your immediate family know that you’re okay through a text message, and might blast out a quick email (do kids use that anymore?) to a few close friends, there may be others who care about you.

And some of those people might start calling around to places like a call center if they don’t know that you are okay. Yes, that might seem odd to you, and no, they aren’t your responsibility. But still, it happens.

For each person who calls, we have to take down information. We will eventually filter out people who have a good reason to suspect their loved one was involved (“She was at the Ariana Grande concert”) from the less likely to be involved (“I know he lived in or around Manchester in the late 90s,”), but it still takes time. And while the ultimately unnecessarily worried person calls, there may be others on the phone who are desperate to get through, and who may get the news that their child has been taken to hospital. Depending on the call volume, some people will have to wait and, inevitably, some of those waiting will be able to be connected to their loved ones in hospital, but only once they get through.

This does not mean people shouldn’t call, but if someone sees that the people they care about are safe, they won’t feel compelled to call about them. Then we can focus our time on connecting with who are looking for someone who was involved.

I appreciate and respect the fact that Facebook Safety Check could be improved. I also recognize that it may be serving a financial purpose for Mr. Zuckerberg (if a service is free, that makes you the product they are selling, right?), but please consider not writing that off. It’s one way that us emergency managers can help filter out the noise and focus on those who are affected by the event. Almost like a public service.

And that’s what you want, right?

*This is not news, right? Like, you could Google my name and find that out.

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