Researchers from the University of Maryland have proposed the development of the social-networking equivalent of a 9/11 call centre, where users could post information during a disaster and respond offline to the needs of their neighbours during a flood, heat wave or other emergency event.

Professors Ben Shneiderman and Jennifer Preece outlined their research around creating a network of sites that could be linked as a "community response grid" in the US edition of Science magazine.

The concept of social networking could allow users to post text or photos during a disaster and also could provide local emergency responders with an outlet to quickly notify residents of potential danger and advise them on the next steps to take, Shneiderman said. The research paper proposes that trained volunteers operate the social-networking site, which would be linked with local emergency agencies such as fire and police departments.

Shneiderman came up with the idea of using the internet to supplement the 6,100 911 centres now in operation when he searched for 9/11 resources on the internet last year and found no way for citizens to report emergency information online.

"The phone system functions very well for heart attacks or accidents ... but when you have major events like a flood, an ice storm or a terrorist attack, then the small number of people answering those phones can't handle those calls," he said. "The internet is more scalable. If you are in or near an area where there are floods, hurricanes or an E. coli outbreak ... you might report an incident that would be useful to others."

Hurricane Katrina is an example of where this type of community-based effort might have been helpful, Shneiderman said. If people had been able to communicate online to find ways to get out of the city, more of them might have been able to evacuate, he said. In addition, some deaths from past heat waves in the US and France might have been avoided if neighbours had a way to organise methods for checking on the elderly or others who could be vulnerable.

Shneiderman, who has asked the US National Science Foundation for money to test the concept on the University of Maryland campus, noted that such a project would have obstacles, such as warding off hoaxes and building an environment of trust where people would ask for and offer assistance to one another.