Twitter has launched a new service called Twitter Alerts to help governments and aid agencies send warnings and alerts during disasters.

The real-time nature of Twitter will allow organisations to quickly spread the word about evuacation procedures or the locations of nearby hospitals, so people can find the help the need in real-time at times of emergency. On the official Twitter blog Product Manager Gaby Peña described the service as:

Twitter Alerts is a new way to get accurate and important information when you need it most.

Users who sign up for the service will receive a notification every time the government and aid organisation accounts tweet a message and mark it as an alert, with the alerts indicated by an “orange bell”. To sign up users just need to head to the account of the group they wish to receive alerts from, such as this FEMA page, and click teh “Activate Alerts” button.

Twitter is looking to roll out this feature to a wide number of organisations, with US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Tokyo’s Disaster Prevention service, and the World Health Organization (WHO) available at launch.

This launch comes a year after the launch of Twitter Lifeline for Japan which helps people find emergency accounts in a crisis.

New system will allow governments and aid agencies to send alerts during disasters.

Twitter, which is preparing for its initial public offering, said on Wednesday it will help users receive special alerts from government agencies and aid agencies during emergencies.

Residents are informed about hazards in real time and emergency managers receive immediate feedback
Users who sign up will receive smartphone notifications via the Twitter app as well as SMS text messages – assuming they agree to handover their cell phone numbers – from any of several dozen agencies who have signed on to the program.

The US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Tokyo’s Disaster Prevention service and the World Health Organization (WHO) are among those participating.

The alerts program starts a year after Twitter showcased its potential as a lifeline during Hurricane Sandy, when stranded residents on the eastern US seaboard reported the storm’s progress and sought help on the mobile network.

A similar lifeline service played a part in the rescue efforts in Japan following the devastating 2011 tsunami, Twitter said. The program is initially available in the United States, Japan and Korea and will be expanded to other countries.

Craig Fugate, the FEMA administrator, said the service was at the cutting edge of disaster management in the age of smartphones.

“Today we have a two-way street — residents are informed about hazards in real time and emergency managers receive immediate feedback on the consequences of a disaster,” Fugate said in a statement.

The program reflects the evolution of Twitter from its earliest days, when it gained a reputation as a hangout for geeks to share the minute details of their most recent meal or who they encountered at the South by Southwest Festival.

But the crowd-sourced information of today’s Twitter has also proved problematic.

Even as the New York City Fire Department used Twitter to communicate with residents during Hurricane Sandy, there were pranksters who spread misinformation on the service, including a rumor that the New York Stock Exchange was submerged underwater.

And in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, the name of a missing Brown University student went viral on Twitter after many users, including journalists, mistakenly identified him as a suspect.

Twitter, for its part, has maintained a strictly hands-off attitude toward monitoring its content and denied responsibility for ensuring its accuracy.

Earlier this month, Twitter filed with regulators for an initial public offering. Reuters reported last week that Twitter was in talks looking to add additional banks to its underwriting syndicate.

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