Safety Check: Can Facebook’s New Tool Minimize The Problems of Clogged Networks?

December 4th, 2015

By CHHS RA Jules Szanton

On November 13th, terrorists murdered at least 130 victims in a series of coordinated attacks in Paris, France.  While concerned people around the world learned of the attacks through traditional media sources, millions of social media users learned about the attacks through a more personalized medium: a Facebook tool.  This tool, called Safety Check, has the potential to change the way people connect with family and friends after surviving a disaster.  If Facebook can move a critical mass of these post-disaster conversations online, the social media giant could relieve phone networks from the stress and failure that they often experience immediately after a terror attack or extreme weather event.

Facebook unveiled its Safety Check tool in October of 2014.  Facebook users do not see the tool unless Facebook determines that a disaster has occurred somewhere in the world.  When that happens, any Facebook user located in the impacted region can choose to share their status with all their Facebook friends at once.  Any Facebook user–including users located outside the impacted region–can track the statuses of their friends in the impacted region.

The idea behind Safety Check is not new.  Well before Facebook unveiled Safety Check, the American Red Cross created Safe & Well, an online registry which allows registered users to update their status after a disaster.  Yet Safe & Well can only be used by people who specifically sign up for the service, limiting its reach.  In contrast, Facebook’s program is available (and advertised) to anyone with a profile on the site.

Facebook first deployed the tool during the earthquakes that devastated Nepal in April and May of 2015.  Since using the tool in Nepal, Facebook also activated Safety Check after natural disasters in Chile, Mexico, and Afghanistan.

The November 13th attacks marked the first time that Facebook employed Safety Check in response to a terrorist attack.  The response was astonishing.  4.1 million Facebook users used the tool to update friends and family on their status.

The tool is likely to be used increasingly frequently.  Although the tool itself was well-received, many were critical of Facebook’s failure to use Safety Check after terror attacks in non-western countries.  Perhaps in response to this criticism, Facebook deployed Safety Check on November 18 after a bombing in Nigeria.  One Nigerian man told the BBC that he appreciated being able to use the tool to assure family and friends that he was unharmed, and felt that Facebook had listened to the criticism.

In addition to helping Facebook users, the Safety Check feature also has the potential to relieve the massive strain that phone networks often experience after a natural or man-made disaster.  Phone networks sometimes fail during “mass call events,” or periods of time when huge numbers of people are all attempting to make calls from the same place.  For example, after both the 9/11 attacks and the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, people who had survived the attacks were often unable to get cell phone service to call loved ones.  Similarly, during the severe snowstorm that hit the Washington D.C. area in January of 2011, call volume was so high that many emergency calls to 9-1-1 were dropped.

Emergency management professionals have long realized the problems posed by high call volume immediately after disasters.  The Federal Communication Commission’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, for example, asks phone users to “(l)imit non-emergency phone calls [during disasters, in order to]…free up ‘space’ on the network for emergency communications.”  Through its work on interoperable communications for First Responders, especially on FirstNet, the first nationwide broadband network dedicated to public safety, CHHS is helping address the problem of First Responders being unable to access voice and data networks during large scale emergencies. The public may not need communication networks to save lives, but they naturally want to let those closest to them know when they have survived a difficult situation.

In a somewhat ironic twist, the social network that keeps many people glued to their smartphones may have created the product that can coax people away from phone networks in the immediate aftermath of a disaster.

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