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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

New Twitter limits have emergency agencies warning residents to sign up for alerts to stay informed

The union representing firefighters for Spokane County Fire District 8 often tweets information to the public about fires they are responding to. Changes made to Twitter in June 2023 have restricted how the union and many others can use Twitter. Fire vehicles from Spokane County Fire District 8 sit outside the agency's headquarters on the Palouse Highway on Aug. 9, 2022.  (Jonathan Brunt/The Spokesman-Review)

Fire and emergency response agencies are urging local residents to subscribe to cellphone or other alerts as Twitter issues new limits on how many tweets a user can view per day, creating obstacles for groups that use the platform to issue emergency notifications.

Twitter owner Elon Musk announced Saturday that the platform is imposing rate limits on the number of tweets a user can view per day, a temporary measure in response to artificial intelligence companies combing through tweets and extracting data.

The restrictions are causing problems for firefighters and other emergency services that use Twitter.

“Spokane Co.FD8 Firefighters,” an account run by the firefighters union International Association of Firefighters Local 3711 from Spokane County Fire District 8, exceeded their rate Saturday morning, about 10 minutes after firefighter Jay Wilkins opened the Twitter app. Wilkins said other firefighters also use the account.

“You kind of feel like you’ve been put in time out,” Wilkins said. “Like we’ve been punished.”

Verified accounts, those that pay $8 per month for Twitter Blue or receive the status through an organization, are limited to reading 10,000 posts per day. Unverified users can see 1,000 tweets daily. Unverified accounts created after Saturday’s announcement are limited to 500 posts each day.

On Friday, users noticed they weren’t able to view tweets without logging in. Musk tweeted that the policy was temporary, but didn’t specify how long the rate limits would be in place on the platform. Individual users’ rations refresh daily, and he increased the rates incrementally as the day progressed, from 600 to 1,000 for unverified users.

The union’s account was prohibited from viewing posts for 14 hours. While a number of partially contained weekend wildfires burned near the district’s jurisdiction, the unverified account was barred from viewing any tweets, including updates to the blaze.

Emergency response teams don’t use Twitter to communicate internally, so the rate limit won’t cut off communication among crews responding to emergent incidents. Even so, Wilkins said Twitter is an invaluable tool in connecting communities with accurate information when time is of the essence, like in natural disasters.

“We’re kind of an intermediary as the incident is evolving. Before a full incident command post is created, we can use Twitter,” Wilkins said. “We’ve found it a very successful process over the years, building that relationship between local journalists helps us get that information out in a timely manner.”

Firefighters use the platform to hear community feedback as well, and will monitor the account for mentions and messages during emergencies. They use the account to patrol for updates from verified government agencies’ accounts or community members, Wilkins said.

In the event rate limits continue to obstruct the union’s account, Wilkins may turn to Facebook or Instagram. These platforms aren’t ideal, he said, because their algorithms favor user interactivity rather than chronology. An urgent notification could be buried in a user’s feed if it has fewer likes or shares.

The union tweeted Saturday afternoon that they hit their limit and asked Twitter to lift the limit, garnering over 160,000 views on the social media platform.

In the wake of this change, the official Washington Emergency Management account asked users to opt in to receive local alerts from the organization.

“Before you exceed your Twitter rate limits, please make sure you sign up for local alerts,” the account tweeted. “We wouldn’t want your 601st tweet to be an evacuation or tsunami notice.”

The website offers instructions on signing up for notifications for weather and natural disasters specific to Washington counties and other jurisdictions. Wilkins said this is the best way to stay informed, as Twitter’s interface continuously changes.

Spokane Fire Department Chief Brian Schaeffer uses Twitter to post information on incidents like fires and collisions. He said he’s a “big fan” of the PulsePoint app, which documents ongoing and recent fires, floods and other situations that require emergency response teams. Users can sign up for notifications specific to their area, customize notification settings and listen to departments’ live radio traffic. The app is free and available for Apple, Android and Google devices in the app store.

“With all the drama surrounding Twitter platform, politically and in the actual world, it just makes sense for consumers like us as emergency responders and community members to have alternatives,” Schaeffer said. “So you don’t have to rely on Musk or anyone to get alerts, and have more than one way to get information.”

Musk tweeted that “extreme levels of data scraping” necessitated limits. AI companies scour internet sources to run programs like ChatGPT, taking in massive amounts of data in brief timeframes.

Twitter responded to The Spokesman-Review’s emailed request for comment with a grinning poop emoji, the company’s automatic boilerplate reply to press inquiries.