10/09/2012 04:54 EDT | Updated 12/09/2012 05:12 EST

Canadians expect first responders to answer their online pleas for help:poll

TORONTO - More than a third of Canadians who responded to a new survey believe a well-placed hashtag or a strategically-directed Facebook post could serve as a stand-in for a 911 call in emergency situations.

A poll conducted by Ipsos Reid on behalf of the Canadian Red Cross found more than 35 per cent of those surveyed would expect first responders, such as firefighters or police officers, to swing into action after receiving a call for emergency assistance over social media.

Of those respondents, 74 per cent said they would expect that assistance to come within an hour.

While the idea of reporting emergency situations online may seem like a natural next step in a world that stays plugged-in 24/7, officials with one of the country's largest police forces were quick to issue a reality check.

Meaghan Gray, spokeswoman with the Toronto Police Service, said the force's various social media accounts were never intended as emergency response channels.

Twitter feeds, Facebook pages and other profiles are not monitored 24 hours a day, she said, adding that online pleas for help may languish in cyberspace until it's too late.

A call to 911 remains the only appropriate way to seek urgent assistance, she said.

"I understand that given the immediacy of social media, given the prevalent use of social media, that people would see that as a logical next step," Gray said in a telephone interview. "Maybe one day it will be, but not right now."

That scenario would be welcome to the majority of those who responded to the Red Cross survey, the numbers showed.

Two thirds of survey participants said first responders should be regularly monitoring social media sites as a matter of course, while 63 per cent said firefighters and police should be able to react to emergency calls made online.

Const. Scott Mills, a Toronto police officer who serves as a social media adviser to Crimestoppers International, said the reality of present-day policing simply doesn't allow for such scenarios yet.

Most police forces are understaffed and lack the manpower to keep an eye on the online arenas where potentially life-threatening situations threaten to boil over at any time, he said.

Most forces also only accept anonymous tips from people reporting on non-urgent crimes, he added.

Individual officers who keep an eye on social media often see distressing posts about suicide attempts in progress or acts of violence that have just taken place, he said.

"Inevitably, when I check when I'm off-duty, I find something, and then I wind up working for the next two hours which completely throws your work-life balance out of whack," Mills said.

Social media has helped prevent some disasters, he said, citing a campus shooting that was narrowly averted when one of his Facebook acquaintances brought some disturbing posts to his personal attention.

Still, those scenarios are not the norm, Mills said. The global nature of the Internet demands a central organization that would make it easier for people around the world to report crimes using social media, voice-over-IP technology such as Skype and any other common tools of the digital age, he said.

"Most police services are not equipped to do what's required at the moment, but the dialog is definitely occurring," he said. "The more noise that can be made on this issue ... the better it's going to be for our global community safety."

One of the key questions respondents to the Ipsos poll were asked was: "If you posted a request for help to social media website, do you think emergency services, such as police or fire, would send help?"

The poll surveyed 500 people from Ipsos' Canadian online panel and 500 people by phone between June 19 and July 4, 2012.

The polling industry's professional body, the Marketing Research and Intelligence Association, says online surveys cannot be assigned a margin of error because they do not randomly sample the population.