In the wake of the mass shooting at Pulse last Sunday, Facebook employed its Safety Check feature for the first time in the U.S.
The social networking site introduced the Safety Check in October 2014, providing a centralized outlet for users to post about their well-being in a state of emergency. It has been used in the midst of natural disasters, such as the deadly earthquake in Nepal in 2015, and during acts of terror, including the coordinated series of attacks that hit Paris in 2016.
Andrew Selepak, who serves as the director of the University of Florida’s mass communication master’s program with a specialization in social media, said the feature gives loved ones a more immediate sense of relief in times of crisis.
“It’s important to look at this within the framework of September 11,” Selepak said. “The World Trade Center Towers went down, then the cellphone towers went down and suddenly nobody could get in contact with anybody. And that was a particularly harrowing moment ... The Facebook Safety Check creates a faster, more immediate sense of relief for those who did get out of a particular situation alive and intact.”
With the click of a button, Facebook users in Orlando and the surrounding area were able to check the “I’m safe” option for themselves and their friends on the morning of June 12.
Among those who flocked to the site were thousands of UCF students. They marked themselves as safe, alerting their parents and close friends who had not yet heard about the massacre.
A bleary-eyed Jen Carreras awoke to a Facebook alert that said her 21-year-old son Michael Carreras was safe. Since she and her husband live in Australia, Carreras said they were grateful to receive the notification before turning on the news.
“I would’ve been sick with worry,” Carreras said.
Although Michael was physically unharmed, he was emotionally rattled. The UCF senior and business marketing major worked an eight-hour shift as a valet driver at Florida Hospital Orlando, one of the medical centers that treated victims of the Pulse shooting spree.
During a phone call with his mother, Michael recounted how distraught family members beelined for the hospital’s door, hoping to find their loved ones inside.
That call did not come until he left work, hours after the shooting. Carreras said she credits the Safety Check feature for putting her mind at ease before she even dialed Michael’s number.
“Just knowing he was okay helped more than I can express,” Carreras said.
UCF graduate student Andrea Pulido said Pulse was once her “go-to bar for a fun and safe night” with friends. After hearing about a heavily armed gunman at the nightclub, she immediately checked Facebook.
“Every time I got a new notification, I could feel the anxiety and fear slowly dissipating, and that was comforting,” Pulido said. “It helped me narrow down the group of people I had to call, and it helped my family and friends know that I was okay.”
Shaken by the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, the 24-year-old kept a close eye on new developments in the Pulse tragedy as it garnered nationwide attention. Like Pulido, Florida resident Kristen Casey was not in the area at the time of the massacre.
Without hesitation, Casey called her 21-year-old son after learning that a gunman had stormed the Pulse nightclub. The call went straight to voicemail.
“It’s the scariest thing when you can’t reach your kids,” Casey said. “No matter what age they are, they’re still your kids.”
Leo Casey, a UCF senior and criminal justice major, works as a security guard Thursdays through Saturdays at The Attic, a nightclub located about 2 miles from Pulse.
When Casey went on Facebook, she was notified that a handful of her friends had used the Safety Check feature. She typed Leo’s name into the search box and discovered that he had checked himself in as safe.
“Social media can be a negative force in society, but features like that make it worth all the other things that you have to see and deal with,” Casey said.
Trish Norman-Figueiredo, a mother of a UCF alumnus and a current UCF student, echoed Casey’s sentiments. She said enacting the Safety Check offers some sense of comfort in the face of tragedy.
“It’s a brilliant idea,” Norman-Figueiredo said. “It brings a touch of calm in the eye of the storm.”
This story was originally published on June 22, 2016.
Shana Medel is a Digital Producer for the Central Florida Future. Email her at ShanaM@CentralFloridaFuture.com.