This is a matter that I too have had to consider when working as an SES media officer.

I’m a volunteer with a local NSW SES unit and manage the Facebook Page for the unit. It has always been unit policy not to log request for assistance (RFAs) over Facebook and ask the person to contact 132 500.

Today a member of the public sent a private message to the page in regards to a tree down, resting on powerlines, she also attaches a photo, and by sticking to Unit policy the following ‘saved reply’ was sent:

“Please call 132 500 to log a job with the NSW SES. Unfortunately we can not take requests for assistance over social media. If the situation is life threatening call triple zero (000).”

Later on another page admin and I had a discussion regarding our duty of care, as we know about this issue but we aren’t doing anything until the informant calls 132 500, what if the tree falls down onto someone or something causing injury / death or property damage or what if the person fails to call 132 500, where do we sit in regards to liability and duty of care, it’s like a person approaching a police officer and saying there is an armed robbery next door, but the police officer returns with “call triple zero” and walks away.

Is there a requirement for us to act on information we have or can we just turn our backs and tell the informant to call 132 500.

Without going into the details let us just assume, for the sake of the argument, that there is a legal duty to respond to emergencies caused by floods and storms (but see Liability for fire – a review of earlier posts (January 8, 2016) and the principles there will in many (but not all)  cases also apply to the SES).    The use of the 132 500 number (or the triple zero service for police, fire and ambulance services) is the ‘system’ that has been adopted to allow people to seek emergency assistance, but the critical issue is that they need assistance and the service knows about it; it can’t be ‘how did the service come to know about it?’  As my correspondent says that’s akin to ‘a person approaching a police officer and saying there is an armed robbery next door, but the police officer returns with “call triple zero” and walks away’.  Other examples also come to mind, a person calling for help from within a building and emergency services declining to respond until a triple zero call is received, or paramedics being told that someone has collapsed nearby but not responding without a triple zero call (see Failure to attend by NSW Police and Ambulance (December 18, 2013)).

Every service has to consider how it will respond to emergencies that it discovers by means other than a triple zero or 132 500 call.  But each service has limited capacity and monitoring social media is labour intensive and messages will no doubt be missed.   To consider that from a legal perspective let us assume there is a duty to respond (a position that is not clear and probably not true as plenty of earlier posts on this site will show) and consider the classic rule set out in Wyong Shire v Shirt and repeated in plenty of earlier posts.  Where there is a duty of care, it is up to the court to:

… determine what a reasonable man would do by way of response to the risk. The perception of the reasonable man’s response calls for a consideration of the magnitude of the risk and the degree of the probability of its occurrence, along with the expense, difficulty and inconvenience of taking alleviating action and any other conflicting responsibilities which the defendant may have. It is only when these matters are balanced out that the tribunal of fact can confidently assert what is the standard of response to be ascribed to the reasonable man placed in the defendant’s position. (Wyong Shire v Shirt (1980) 146 CLR 40, 48).

It is clearly foreseeable that with all the best efforts in the world, people will send messages via twitter, Facebook and the like.  As the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission made clear, emergency services can’t plan on everyone doing what the services recommended.  In that context it was that the fire services may encourage everyone to have a plan and either prepare, stay and defend or leave early, but you have to plan for people who don’t do any of those things.  In this context the publicity may well be ‘for emergency help in floods and storms call 132 500’ but we know that not everyone will.   So there is a risk that people will try to send a message via twitter or Facebook.  How likely is it that they will do that?  Very likely.

How bad will it be if that’s missed –it could be fatal.

What is the ‘expense’ of taking action?  That might mean having someone monitor facebook 24 hours a day but even then messages will be missed.  Someone who posts on their own page ‘help I’m in trouble’ isn’t going to be heard and even if they #ses the message may slip through particularly during a big event when there is a large amount of traffic.   The requirement to provide a reasonable response is not a requirement to guarantee an actual response.  Setting up to monitor social media for those purposes is both expensive and difficult and ties up resources that are needed elsewhere.  So perhaps a response of an automatic message that says

“Please call 132 500 to log a job with the NSW SES. Unfortunately we can not take requests for assistance over social media. If the situation is life threatening call triple zero (000).”

Is just fine.

But that doesn’t answer the question of what to you do if you do know of the emergency.  Perhaps people can’t call for help.  They’ve got an iPod that can connect to a wi-fi signal but no phone or having posted the pictures and requested help they’ve been washed into the river; who knows?  Now the messages you’ve missed, you’ve missed, but this one you’ve seen.   A person has attempted to make contact, they have succeeded in making contact, but then the service doesn’t respond because the person didn’t make contact in the way preferred by the service.

It’s not a legal test but run that through the ‘Telegraph Mirror’ (for NSW readers) test – what would the media say when it’s found out that the SES did see the request, complete with photos and let us assume sufficient information to identify the address, but didn’t come?   Or, a favourite question for emergency service personnel, what’s the coroner going to say if the next day the SES are recovering the person’s body?

It seems to me that if there is a duty to respond (again putting that question to one side) then it can’t matter how you come to know of the emergency.  If the duty to respond only arose because someone rang 132 500 that would mean that there would be a duty to rescue someone who knows your phone number, but not someone who doesn’t.   Can you imagine surf lifesavers refusing to rescue someone as they didn’t put their hand up in the recommended way, or police because the person was being attacked and didn’t call triple zero etc.

A colleague of mine, Dr David Hudson, did his PhD on data and trust, asking what data do emergency managers ‘trust’ and why?  This begged the question of why do they ‘trust’ and therefore respond to a phone call but not a tweet or Facebook post?  Even more complex issues arise with the sort of algorithms that can monitor social media and suggest, via the traffic, that there’s an emergency happening even before someone rings.

One cannot say where the SES stands ‘on liability’ as it would depend on far too many factors about what was going on, the nature of the request for assistance and what attempts were made to get the person to ring 132 500 or perhaps getting the SES to ring them back.  One can’t say that there is a duty to monitor all social media, but if an agency’s going to have a social media presence it has to at least think about what the response will be to these inevitable requests.   I don’t imagine a blanket response of ‘we just don’t respond’ will be sufficient but I also suspect that the technology is still so new that it’s reasonable for agencies not to have the matter fully resolved.   But an extreme example can make the point, imagine someone has managed to skype in so they are talking one-on-one to an SES operator and providing all the information required.  To not respond because they didn’t call 132 500 could not be reasonable.  The operator themselves could take the details and complete an RFA.  If that’s true why is it not true if the information is received via Facebook and Twitter?  Often the information will be incomplete and that’s then a different issue but assuming it’s not?

Conclusion

I can’t reach a legal conclusion because each case and circumstance will be different but I think I can safely say that a decision to ignore information just because it isn’t received by the ‘preferred’ method would be hard to justify.  It may not lead to legal liability but given everyone’s fear of coroners, it is not something I would want to explain if the person made contact (that is they didn’t just send the message, they sent it and it was actually received) and were ignored.