On the afternoon of the Fort Hood shootings, my cell phone rang. The screen identified my father as the caller.
I immediately had a bad feeling about the call. It was in the middle of the afternoon, and my father doesn't usually call me when I'm working unless he has a very good reason.
As soon as I answered, he said, "I just heard from your mother, and she's okay, but you need to know that there's been a shooting at the base."
You can imagine how it went from there. We had very little information - my mother was only able to talk to my father very briefly. She was under instructions not to talk to anyone at all as it was.
I immediately logged on to CNN - nothing. Fox - nothing. I was frustrated. In this day and age, the news media is practically omniscient. I couldn't believe that there wasn't someone, somewhere, recording everything on a cell phone camera streaming live from an online news site.
In desperation, I turned to Twitter, where Fox News personality Andy Levy had just reported on a shooting at Fort Hood. His brief, one sentence "tweet" was marked with a code: "#fthood."
It was pure coincidence that I had opened a Twitter account that morning. I'm a late adapter for nearly any technology. I was the last person I knew (among people my age) to acquire things most people take for granted: the last to get a cell phone; the last to learn how to send a text message; the last to get on Facebook. I think the only reason I logged on to Twitter was because I was tired of seeing it mentioned everywhere and still not understanding how it worked or why it would be useful.
Twitter was my lifeline that afternoon.
For the uninitiated, Twitter is a "microblogging" service. Users enter "tweets" - entries of no more than 140 characters. Other users can "follow" you, which means that your tweets show up on their account as you enter them. You can do the same, and choose to follow others. The result is that when I log on to my Twitter account, I see a page full of entries from people that I am following - favorite authors, musicians, bloggers, commentators, all posting one or two sentences at a time on topics of interest to me.
Twitter users can also embed a code - called a "hashtag" - in their tweet that allows other users to find the tweet. For example, I clicked on Andy Levy's #fthood hashtag that afternoon, and what I saw was this:
Thousands of people all posting on the Fort Hood story, in real time - hundreds of tweets a minute, from all over the globe. They were posting links to news stories and broadcasting information that they got from friends, family, and local media. Anyone who put the #fthood tag on their tweets was a part of this conversation.
Twitter users were several minutes ahead of online media in their reports, and for the most part, what they reported was accurate. Twitter was my best source of information that afternoon. -- That, and discovering that my mother really does know how to send and receive text messages on her cell phone, after all, which was incredibly useful not only because it was my only direct link to her but because the text messages went through even though all the local phone lines were overloaded, making a voice connection impossible.
Clearly if you are the victim of a disaster, Twitter is not likely to be useful to you. My mother did not have the time or inclination to sit at her computer during the shootings and see what was being reported. But for me, as a concerned family member looking for information, it was invaluable.
My recommendations for anyone looking to increase their emergency preparedness would be this: (1) Learn to use Twitter. (2) Learn to send and receive text messages on your cell phone.