Social Media – The Next Big Thing for Emergency Managers

I was at work during the Washington Navy Yard Shooting on Sept. 16, 2013 and I quickly turned to Google News for information, but my coworker turned to Twitter.  Chatting over our shoulders we shared information – “Possibly three shooters at the Navy Yard,” she said, “The whole place is on lockdown,” I relayed. That day, I learned Twitter trumps Google News and CNN and other big communications outlets in terms of accessing play-by-play information as users post and share information en masse, uninhibited, and rapidly.   In the end, we both tracked the Twitter feed as information, correct and incorrect rolled in.  For me, this was an aha-moment – If I want to know what people are saying and I want to know now, social media is the place to go as that’s where first hand information is going.

Emergency managers had their own social media aha-moment in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti on January 12, 2010.  After Haiti, the emergency management community realized that social media “is not a fad anymore,” said Ron Prater, co-owner of Corner Alliance and Director for Big City Emergency Managers, during a NextGov Prime 2013 panel discussion, “Tweeting up a Storm: Managing Emergencies and Disasters with Mobile Technologies.” Not only is social media not a fad, but the public expects local authorities to use social media in an emergency.  “We are trying to get our heads around that,” said panelist Nicole Chapple, Policy Director of the District of Columbia Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency (DC HSEMA).

The emergency management community has come a long way, since 2010, in its use of social media.  For example, panelist Gloria Huang, Senior Social Engagement Specialist for the Red Cross explained how its Social Media Digital Operations Center for Humanitarian Relief monitors social media to extrapolate valuable information.  Over 100 Red Cross volunteers are trained as Digital Volunteers to watch social media feeds, disseminate information, manage the rumor mill, and flag critical information.

DC HSEMA used social media to crowd source information and intercept issues during the January 2012 Presidential Inauguration, Chapple said.  Social media is changing the way organizations are managing ongoing emergencies and potential emergencies, she added. Determining how to analyze all of the crowd sourced information and what to trust is the real challenge.

Panelists agreed that emergency managers have only scratched the surface of identifying all the potential emergency management uses for social media.  With increasing budget cuts, emergency managers need to figure out how to utilize social media within the constraints of existing resources, Chapple said.  While every emergency is different and it is a challenge to predict what the right message will be, “human beings tend to be very predictable and one of the really powerful things we’ll eventually be able to analyze with social media is the predictive patterns we see people going through,” said Carter Hewgley, FEMAStat director in the Office of Policy and Program Analysis at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Today, I am not only using Twitter to access information, I am one of 550 million Twitter users putting my voice out there into the Twitterverse.  You can bet, if /when there is another event in Washington, DC, my tweets will augment the torrent of information put out there by social media users.  If we (Twitter users) are providing this volume of information, not only is it a good idea for emergency managers to leverage it for their response, emergency managers owe it to the public to do so.   Social media empowers users to become active participants in an emergency, emboldening the user beyond passive bystander or helpless victim.  FEMA, DC HSEMA, and the Red Cross are on the cutting edge of innovation in the use of social media for emergency management, but even they recognize that they have barely tapped its potential.  Fortunately, emergency managers have realized that the use of social media for emergency management is no longer an “if,” but a “how”.  Defining the “how” is still a work in progress, but it is an issue that the emergency management community appears to be working through.