Millions of users have left Twitter, along with more than half its workforce since Elon Musk, owner of Tesla and SpaceX, bought the 16-year-old social media giant. Drastically reduced staff has caused an increase in moderation and security issues — such as parody accounts and misinformation.
In Boulder County, many officials use Twitter as their primary broadcast channel, leading residents to rely on their tweets as the best real-time information source in emergencies.
When living in an area with ever-present fire and flood risk, access to such communication feels essential. But with the recent Twitter developments, questions are raised: Should the county rely on a private entity as its main means of contact with the public? What if Twitter has an outage, or impersonation spreads to the county’s official accounts? Or what if Boulderites just want off of the platform?
“It appears that the only way to get immediate, real-time emergency information during a fire or other Boulder emergency is through Twitter,” one resident wrote to Boulder Reporting Lab. “I would love, love, love to be able to completely delete my Twitter account, but until there’s another way to get real-time emergency information in Boulder, I don’t feel safe doing so.”
The Boulderite said she is aware of the Office of Emergency Management website, but also noticed it only updates with “high-level breaking alerts” or following news conferences. The OEM Twitter account, conversely, is updated more frequently and has a following of almost 70,000.
BRL talked to those in charge of Boulder’s emergency communications to find out how, if at all, the county is planning for Twitter’s next chapter; and what Boulderites wishing to leave the tweet space should do to ensure they’re getting vital crisis communications.
Marya Washburn, a public information officer for Boulder Fire-Rescue, said the fire department relies on its website as an in-depth communication tool “that we do have control over, that isn’t a privately-owned company.” Moving forward, Washburn said, the fire department is going to continue pushing people from social media to the city’s website via links in social posts. That way, not only do residents get linked to the “primary source of information” from “whatever social media platform they find it on,” they also get more context than just a few sentences.
As social media winds change — with old platforms dying and new ones arising — Washburn said it’s important to establish consistent places where the city can send residents to get reliable information. And a government website, outside the social media colosseum, is a place to do that.
Dionne Waugh, a public information officer for Boulder Police Department, said it all comes down to reaching people where they are. Whether by phone calls, texts, Twitter, Facebook, Nextdoor or Reddit, “it’s about trying to reach as many community members as we can.”
Waugh said that of all the places she’s worked, Boulder is the most online and social media savvy. And in her experience, Boulder “always goes to Twitter first.”
So at least for the time being, Twitter will remain Waugh’s primary means for communication. “If something happens right now, I’m going to tweet it out first,” she said.
Washburn agreed. “If something’s on fire, we’ll tweet [it out] as we’re heading to the thing that’s on fire,” she said. Then, as opportunity avails itself, someone will put more information on other platforms and the city’s website — unless the incident is too small for the effort. If you want to know about an intersection that’s going to be closed for the next 30 minutes, you’ll probably have to check Twitter.
For an information hungry town, this seems to affirm Twitter as required reading. But there are other ways that Boulderites can ensure they’re notified in emergency situations.
The most important step you can take for your safety is signing up for Everbridge, Boulder county’s alert system that extends into portions of Longmont and Erie. By inputting your location, phone number and email, you ensure you’ll be contacted directly when an emergency affects your area. Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEAs) operate in a similar way — think of Amber Alerts vibrating your phone — but Everbridge allows for hyperlocal alerts. Where WEAs go out to broad areas, broadcast from cell towers, an Everbridge alert can be sent to a single city block.
If there’s a fire, however, you’ll likely get both an Everbridge and a WEA. And if you forget to sign up for Everbridge, you’ll still probably get a WEA as you don’t have to sign up for those. Or, as Waugh said, you might even get a firefighter or police officer banging on your door telling you it’s time to leave.
But most people don’t want to wait until an officer comes knocking to learn they’re evacuating. That’s where Zonehaven comes in.
Just released by the city — which Washburn said had nothing to do with recent Twitter happenings — Zonehaven allows Boulderites to see real-time developments of evacuations throughout the city. Unlike previous evacuation maps, Zonehaven is the front end of what first responders use to track disasters, meaning information can be immediately disseminated to the public. Paired with Everbridge alerts, Zonehaven will be where residents go to gain more information after their phone initially buzzes.
With the ability to add evacuation routes, shelters and places to store animals — to name a few possibilities — Washburn said Zonehaven can “become a map-focused, informational resource for incidents that are in progress.” California has been using the service for the last 10 years or so.
Twitter can be a dreary place. Last month, Boulder City Councilmember Rachel Friend told us she left Twitter because of “Twitter’s chaotic business moves and its less than stellar treatment of local employee community members.” For Friend, it “curdled into something more toxic than not.” Thankfully, there are other ways to stay informed:
- Sign up for Everbridge.
- Bookmark Zonehaven.
- Bookmark the OEM website.
- And read more in-depth about town happenings on the city’s website.