How San Francisco’s fire department uses Twitter

Other brands measure the effectiveness of their customer service efforts through engagement, but the San Francisco Fire Department does so by how quickly it responds to disasters — literally. It uses Twitter to respond to active situations, make public service announcements and respond to incoming inquiries about both emergencies and potential hazards.

“Whenever there is a natural disaster or a potential disaster, it leads to increased risks of speculation among the people,” said Jonathan Baxter, public information officer at the SFFD. “It was very important for us to take charge of these mediums and try to decrease and eliminate as much speculation as we could.”

During a fire that broke out in San Francisco last year, for example, local news outlets had started reporting news of three casualties, due to helicopter footage that looked like three gurneys covered with yellow blankets. But that was a false alarm. There had been no casualties, in fact, and this was something that the SFFD was able to quickly track through the dashboard and take control of the situation.

“I was able to address the issue within a matter of minutes,” said Baxter. “Any more time, and it would have been the Armageddon.”

It was also imperative for the SFFD to find a more streamlined approach to respond to social inquiries. Baxter handles all communication, including social media channels for the brand, with the brand receiving “hundreds” of inquiries a day. That kind of volume often used to take anywhere between 10 minutes and an hour for him to respond to, but now takes an average of five minutes. The approach has reduced the burden of calls to dispatch centers during times of active situations, from over 30 at the beginning of 2016 to less than five today.

“There were times when I had a phone pressed against both my ears, and a computer as well as an iPad in front of me,” he said.

The department uses an Oracle dashboard to monitor online conversations to keep track of potential incidents as well as push out updates across Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Given the nature of its functions, Twitter remains the most important channel for the department. But the SFFD also pushes out proactive social media campaigns on its other channels, encouraging responsible behavior. These posts often include photos, and sometimes even videos. It now has 6,500 followers on Twitter.

“We are continuing to learn and improve,” said Baxter. “Some city departments we closely follow and learn from are the city of Sacramento and the city of Los Angeles.”

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