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Research Question

  1. How can social media be better leveraged for situational awareness in U.S. Coast Guard response operations?

Social media can enhance situational awareness in response operations, but using social media this way poses challenges. The aim of this project was to contribute to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) mission to ensure resilience to disasters by helping DHS understand whether and how social media might be better leveraged for such situational awareness. The primary focus of this research was on U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) response operations. Using several types of analyses, the researchers found that, for decades, the USCG and other boaters have relied on communication channels (e.g., Rescue 21) that are intended specifically for maritime safety. As a result, these channels provide specific information that can be used to locate mariners in distress. Yet the authors also found that a significant proportion of distress calls now come to the USCG through other means, such as cell phones and, indirectly, from 911 calls. This raises concerns about potential hindrances to the USCG's search-and-rescue (SAR) mission, including lack of location information, uncertainty about overwater cell coverage, and lack of organizational capacity to collect and analyze social media information. With these findings, the authors recommend that DHS develop policies and procedures to facilitate sharing cell phone distress location data with the USCG, that the USCG work to ensure that an organization—itself or another—assumes responsibility for understanding cell coverage over water, and that the USCG identify other missions for which social media information could help increase maritime safety and security and enhance environmental protection and response operations.

Key Findings

Ways in which the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) receives distress calls are evolving

  • For decades, the USCG and other boaters have relied on communication channels (e.g., Rescue 21) that are intended specifically for maritime safety. As a result, these channels provide specific information that can be used to locate mariners in distress.
  • However, a significant proportion of distress calls now come to the USCG through other means, such as cell phones and, indirectly, from 911 calls. This raises concerns about potential hindrances to the USCG's search-and-rescue (SAR) mission, including lack of location information, uncertainty about overwater cell coverage, and lack of organizational capacity to collect and analyze social media information.

Recommendations

  • The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) should develop policies and procedures to facilitate sharing cell phone distress location data with the USCG.
  • The USCG should work to ensure that an organization—itself or another—assumes responsibility for understanding cell coverage over water.
  • The USCG should identify other missions for which social media information could help increase maritime safety and security and enhance environmental protection and response operations.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    How Are Social Media Being Used in Emergency Response and Disaster Operations?

  • Chapter Three

    Current Challenges in Coast Guard Search-and-Rescue Operations

  • Chapter Four

    Conclusion and Recommendations

  • Appendix A

    Interview Protocol

  • Appendix B

    Analysis of Marine Information for Safety and Law Enforcement Data

Research conducted by

This research was sponsored by the USCG and conducted within the Strategy, Policy, and Operations Program of the Homeland Security Operational Analysis Center (HSOAC) federally funded research and development center (FFRDC).

This report is part of the RAND Corporation research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

The RAND Corporation is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND's publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors.