Tweet this: Emergency communications takes on a new partner

In late October, super storm Sandy knocked the Northeast to its knees, initiating a transition from traditional methods of emergency communication such as televised press conferences and emergency radio broadcasts, to the use of Internet social media to...


In late October, super storm Sandy knocked the Northeast to its knees, initiating a transition from traditional methods of emergency communication such as televised press conferences and emergency radio broadcasts, to the use of Internet social media to get the word out.

Before, during, and after the storm public officials like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie used YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter to communicate with the public. The transition to social media in emergencies began even earlier. In March, 2010, when Rhode Island experienced record flooding that at one point closed nearly 100 roads and 20 bridges, the state’s Department of Transportation used its RIDOT website, as well as social media like Facebook and Twitter, to keep the public advised of new closures.

“On a typical day, the RIDOT site sees about 2,100 hits,” says RIDOT spokesperson Dana Nolfe. “At the height of the flooding, we saw 84,000 hits.” Twitter followers jumped from double digits to 1,150.

In Texas, the use of Facebook and Twitter by the Plano Department of Emergency Management allows the city to push information to local communities instantly. Rather than posting information to a website and hoping citizens look at it, we can engage them online where they are. Citizens no longer need a computer to access Twitter and Facebook—social media is available on their iPhones or Blackberrys. Plano also has a presence on YouTube, Flickr, and MySpace that can be used to unify messages in the event of major disaster.

Elephant in the IC

The use of social media by public officials during crisis and disaster is growing so fast, one disaster management expert says social media has become the elephant in the command center. The problem lies in the National Incident Management System (NIMS) framework—the nationally-accepted model for emergency public information for emergencies and disasters.

“The application of NIMS guidelines and social media for emergency public information is currently counterproductive,” says Adam Crowe, of the Johnson County, Kansas, office of Emergency Management. NIMS calls for all information released to the public during an emergency to be reviewed and approved by incident commanders. Crowe said that this structured review and approval process greatly reduces the effectiveness of social media.

“This is contradictory to the speed, pace, and expectations of the social media community,” Crowe said. His paper (“The Elephant in the JIC: The Fundamental Flaw of Emergency Public Information with the NIMS Framework,” Vol 7, Issue 1, 2010), appearing in the Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, exposed the flaw and called for a NIMS review to see how social media utilization during a response can fit into that system.

“My hope is that the article will inspire discussions at all levels on how to address this issue before it’s too late,” Crowe says. One response has been an online interactive course offered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency called “Social Media in Emergency Management.”

In Crowe’s own county, the sheriff’s office already uses both Twitter and Facebook to communicate with the public. During one 25-hour police stand-off with a barricaded suspect, Johnson County deputies posted tweets and updates related to area closures. “Social media provides an instant and unfiltered message to your community—you don’t have to wait for a news broadcast and your message is not changed by the media,” says deputy Tom Erickson.

Erickson adds that the key to using social media successfully is to establish a presence and build a following. “It’s too late to get in the social media game after an incident has already happened because no one is listening,” he notes. The key, he says, is to develop a base of followers early so when a disaster does occur managers can instantly communicate with the public.

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