Following Sunday’s devastating mass shooting in Orlando, Facebook Inc. has activated its Safety Check feature for the first time in the United States since formally launching in 2014.
The feature allows Facebook users to use the social networking site or app to to confirm they are safe following a natural disaster or emergency. The tool determines which people are near the afflicted area and sends them a message asking if they are safe. Users can then notify their friends and family about their safety with the click of a button. It also helps rescue teams organize searches for those unaccounted for in the affected area.
The activation comes in the wake of what is being called the worst mass shooting in US history, after a gunman armed with an assault rifle and handgun entered a packed gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, during the early morning hours on Sunday, killing 50 people and injuring more than 50 other club patrons. The Pulse nightclub catastrophe ended after a three-hour siege, with police killing the gunman after he engaged in a shootout with law enforcement. Authorities identified the shooter as Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old Florida resident and U.S. citizen.
“Waking up this morning, I was deeply saddened to hear about the shooting in Orlando,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a post on his official page on Sunday. “My thoughts and prayers are with the victims, their families and the LGBT community.”
Sunday’s Safety Check activation marks the first time the feature has been activated in the U.S. since launching in 2014. In the past, Safety Check has been turned on for other international disasters, including the series of terrorist attacks in Paris last November and Typhoon Ruby in the Philippines in 2014.
Facebook has been criticized in the past for not turning on the feature more frequently in the wake of attacks and emergencies. Last year, Facebook vowed to turn on Safety Check during all major disasters after the social network received mass public criticism when it enabled the safety function after the Islamic State attacks in Paris last November, but not when a pair of suicide bombings killed over 40 people in Beirut a day earlier.
Facebook is also in the process of making the safety function more user-friendly. “Earlier this month, we began testing features that allow people to both initiate and share Safety Check on Facebook,” a Facebook spokesperson told Mashable. “Over the last few months, we have improved the launch process to make it easier for our team to activate more frequently and faster, while testing ways to empower people to identify and elevate local crises as well.”
Those with Facebook friends in the Orlando area may have received mobile or web notifications on Sunday as people marked themselves safe following the early-morning shooting. The incident quickly emerged as a top trending topic on Facebook and Twitter, with the hashtag #PrayforOrlando being one of the top posts throughout the day.
According to PC Magazine, Safety Check has been turned on 17 times during 2016, compared with 11 times in 2014 and 2015 combined.