Tag Archives: Emergency management

Reach Your Audience in an Emergency: #SMEM

Post by: Kim Stephens

Flooding was rampant yesterday for what seemed like half the country. Social Media was buzzing with images, safety tips and information about the event as it continued to get increasingly worse as the day wore on and the rain seemed unending.

Using social networks to communicate emergency, safety and preparedness information has now, in 2014, become a standard operating procedure for quite a few emergency management and response organizations. As with any standard procedure, each event can provide an opportunity to understand how to improve and adjust. As a person on the receiving end of the information stream yesterday, I noticed three things that could be improved upon.

1.  Ensure posts are “Mobile Ready”

On a day where the situation is changing rapidly, as it does with flooding, people will be looking for information anywhere they can get it. It is important to keep in mind that there is a high likelihood that those searches will be occurring on a mobile device. According to the Pew Research Center The growing ubiquity of cell phones, especially the rise of smartphones, has made social networking just a finger tap away.  Fully 40% of cell phone owners use a social networking site on their phone, and 28% do so on a typical day.” Of course, the deluge we experienced yesterday was anything but typical, so that percentage was more than likely much higher.

With this in mind, when posting content about road closures, for instance, make sure the user does not have to go to another site to get the information, as seen in this Facebook.

“[County X DPW reports] eight (8) roads closed as of 6:00 a.m. this morning. Crews working to re-open all roads today. For complete list of road closures visit: http://YouCan’tSeeThisOnYourPhone.gov”

There were only 8 roads closed–why not list them all? If you are using a micro-blogging site, such as Twitter, that won’t allow listing all roads in one post–do 8 separate posts.

2. Use Images to Make Your Point

A warning about the dangers of driving through standing water is good, such as the one below.

“A reminder to motorist; please watch for standing water this morning during morning commute. Do NOT drive through standing water.”

However, a picture of a water rescues or a stranded vehicle might be more of a deterrent.

3. Reinforce Where Citizens Can Find Information–On Every Platform

FT_13.10.16_GettingNews2There are many ways communities can reach their citizens with emergency information: a website, reserve calls, social media, door-to-door (if necessary). It is important to keep in mind that no single source will reach all of your citizens. Younger people may search social media for news and information (as shown by the Pew Research Center results) and older individuals might not ever look at your website.

However, linking and reinforcing all of those information outlets is important because you do not know where the citizen will start their search. I’ll use my own community as an example. Quite a few cities and counties have the service that allows them to call citizens on home phones or cell phones to provide updates about the situation. In my community, the call yesterday ended with a note to call the “Hotline” for more information. Unfortunately, there was no mention of their own social media sites that were up and running and providing vital emergency information and regular updates.  A quick visit to the county website also yielded disappointing results–there was no mention of the emergency at all and no easy way to navigate to current information. When choosing the “Facebook” link on the homepage, their emergency management page is not even on the list.

Conclusion

In terms of providing information to citizens via social networking the emergency management community does seem to “get it.”  We are now in a position to tweak and refine our processes in order to best serve our communities versus debate whether or not these are useful tools. That’s a good thing. Let me know, what lessons have you learned from recent experiences?

Keeping the Lines of Communication Open: Atlanta Public School’s Long Snow Day

Post by: Kim Stephens

large_12197276904We had a light dusting of snow last night and schools are closed today in my county. I’m guessing there are some officials in Atlanta wishing they had made the same decision yesterday before snow and ice paralyzed the city‘s roadways. Although they tried to dismiss school early the traffic was so horrific some buses were unable to get children home and instead had to return them to school. Parents who normally pick up their children were stuck in traffic eerily reminiscent of scenes from the Atlanta-based series The Walking Dead. A shelter-in-place order was issued after 10:00 pm last night and about 452 staff and students spent the night in several different ATL public school buildings.

This situation could be any public communicator’s nightmare scenario. However, the Atlanta Public School’s communications team provided a master class in emergency information dissemination, mainly through their @apsupdate (or Atlanta Public Schools Update) Twitter account. Here are a few things they did well.

1. Addressed parents questions and concerns directly

I have heard quite a few communicators debate whether or not they should address direct questions since it could overwhelm staff and bog down the message they are trying to convey. However, in this situation, the decision to address each person was the only logical choice–ignoring parents’ questions could have been its own disaster.

2.  Addressed rumors–immediately

It is a good/best practice to directly address people that are disgruntled or spreading half-true information. The Tweet below demonstrates this tactic. It appears a couple of kids got into a kerfuffle at one of the sheltering schools and were escorted to the office. Once person stated on Twitter “…fights are breaking out!” The Tweet was outlandish and ATL Public School communicators pointed out that not only was the person incorrect, but were needlessly causing concern.

3. Communicated tirelessly

When children are kept in school buildings overnight without their parents I’m guessing not a lot of people are getting a good-night’s rest. This was true for the communications team as well. Indeed, the Twitter feed for the district was active all night, for example, at 2:00 a.m. they addressed an upset parent that was concerned about building security.

In the morning they addressed a high school student that said she was cold:

As the new day began, they addressed a flood of questions and sent out reminders that school was canceled.

4. Used multiple platforms and allowed venting

The school district used both Twitter and Facebook to post school closure and the shelter-in-place information. Not surprisingly, parents were a TAD upset that their children could not get home and were quite unrestrained in their comments, especially on Facebook–calling for administrators to be held accountable, etc. It appears some Facebook comments may have been deleted by the district, however, that mistake was acknowledged or at least addressed. This interaction occurred on their page:

  • Yup. They deleted one of my comments which was not irate, no bad language, nothing. I simply called out the truth – they did not take our children, teachers or parents safety into consideration at all.
  •  Atlanta Public Schools Dana McElwee Carnahan we rarely, if ever delete posts. We value social media and interaction and maintain a robust FB and Twitter presence. Feel free to post again.
5. Social Media is integrated into their Website and Blog
Screenshot 2014-01-29 09.49.29Although the decision to incorporate social media posts into their blog and website was done well before the storm, it certainly can pay dividends during a disaster or emergency.  Websites are still one of the most popular go-to resources for community members: not everyone engages on social media (shocking, I know).  Integration, however,  provides an opportunity for non-social media users to read real-time interactions during the height of the event and participate if they are interested. By prominently displaying these feeds it also reminds community members that their social accounts are active.
Conclusion
Although the Atlanta Public Schools decision-making process regarding closures will probably be questioned in the months to come, the communications team should be praised for their very hard work during this event (which is still ongoing at time of writing).  Not only did they step up during the storm to provide parents and community members with the latest information, they were obviously prepared to do so by having systems and processes in place.  That level of advanced planning is truly a lesson worth noting.

Emergency Preparedness for Foodies: Arizona DEM has the Right Recipe

Post by: Kim Stephens

Screen Shot 2013-09-24 at 5.11.39 PMAs National Preparedness Month comes to a close I had an opportunity to check in on the Emergency Kit Cook-Off Contest, sponsored by Arizona State Division of Emergency Management. My mission: Determine the recipe required to cook up a great preparedness campaign (insert canned laughter here).

For those of you who have not heard of their contest, they describe it to potential participants on the cook-off website as follows:

The Emergency Kit Cook-Off is a participatory preparedness activity inspired by the nonperishable contents of a 72-hour emergency food kit. The Kit Cook-Off encourages play with preparedness principles. More to the point, the Kit Cook-Off challenges you to find creative use for the three day’s worth of food and potable water that you squirreled away for the family in case of an emergency. So take a look in your pantry and get cooking.

The website includes multiple entry points for people to participate. For instance, they can do some or all of the following: vote on the ingredients to be included contest (this is done prior to September);  create a recipe designed with the non-perishable ingredients chosen by the voters (recipe submissions are taken  all year); peruse recipes and preparedness tips offered by other citizens; and/or provide a preparedness tip.  The variety of involvement opportunities is a great way to engage people who have varying interests and abilities. There are even tangible rewards–if someone enters a recipe they will receive an apron.

Recipe

I interviewed Ethan Riley, a PIO at Arizona DEM and Cook-Off project manager, about this effort and I asked about the necessary components required to create, sustain and grow such an innovative project. He had some interesting insights and provided me the “recipe” they have used and adjusted over the past several years.

1 Cup Leadership

Strong leadership is required to agree to such a creative project. According to Mr. Riley, the Director of the Arizona DEM and the lead PIO have a great “let’s just try it” ethos. This, he stated, is important in a budget environment that doesn’t allow for extensive market research to determine what types of campaigns might “stick” with the public. Instead, they have taken the approach of taking small risks with imaginative ideas. It should be noted that the campaign had little expenses the first couple of years–this was accomplished by making use of a free blog site, social media and internal staff.

3/4 Cup Creative Thinkers

Screen Shot 2013-09-24 at 6.35.31 PMIn order to try creative ideas it is necessary to add some creative thinkers to the mix. Ethan stated that the concept of the cook-off came from powerful brainstorming sessions involving food–otherwise known as lunch. Their staff consists of people who consider themselves “foodies” e.g. those interested in great food and restaurants. This interest is also a reflection of the current popular culture that includes television shows such as  Top Chef, Chopped,  Master Chef,  and even entire channels such as the Food Network. The lesson to be learned–if something excites and interests you, it is quite possible others will find it interesting as well.

1/2 Cup Collaboration

Screen Shot 2013-09-25 at 10.48.05 AMEach year Arizona OEM has incorporated new collaborators in order to expand their reach. Some of the most important partners, however, remain their local emergency management agencies within the state. Ethan noted that local DEMs might not have the resources to initiate this type of program on their own, but they can use what the state has already built. There was a conscience effort not to brand the cook-off with Arizona DEM specifically so that spin-offs could occur at the local level. (I think it would be fun to see a bit of competition between communities by incorporating a leader board-type system as well.)

Collaborations with other emergency management organization across the country have also occurred this year.  For instance, the  Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency’s (CRESA) in Vancouver, Washington incorporated the Cook-off as one of the 30 tasks in their 30 Days 30 Ways Emergency Preparedness Challenge.  On day 16 participants were told:

Today, we want you to put together an Emergency Kit Cook-Off recipe. Recipes should use at least one Featured Ingredient supplemented with other nonperishable pantry items.

Note: If your organization is interested in a collaboration, contact Arizona DEM via email.

The Chef

We can’t forget the project manager. I was interested in the day-to-day effort required to sustain the program given the current budget situation of most emergency management organizations.  Ethan indicated that he spends about 10-15% of his time during National Preparedness Month on the campaign.  A little more time was spent gearing up the project, of course, but in terms of daily maintenance, the effort is not as extensive as one might imagine.

Regarding their reach, they have not yet compiled their numbers for the month of September; however,  I’m guessing that no matter how many people participated, those that did will certainly have a pantry that is ready for a disaster.

I look forward to hearing your comments. Let me know what your organization is cooking up! For more details about the Cook-off click here: http://www.emergencykitcookoff.org.

Crowdsourcing, Digital Volunteers, and Policy: New Workshop Summary from the Wilson Center

Post by: Kim Stephens

English: Woodrow Wilson International Center f...

English: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Español: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A year ago this month the Commons Lab, part of the Wilson Center’s  Science & Technology Innovation Program, hosted a workshop with the goal of  “bringing together emergency responders, crisis mappers, researchers, and software programmers to discuss issues surrounding the adoption of… new technologies.”  The discussions included an in-depth review of crowdsourcing, specifically the use–as well as the reluctance, to use digital technology teams to aid in both message dissemination as well as data aggregation. The 148 page report from that meeting was released yesterday and is titled:  “Use of Mass Collaboration in Disaster Management” with a  focus on “opportunities and challenges posed by social media and other collaborative technologies.”

The Executive Summary states:

Factors obstructing the adoption of crowdsourcing, social media, and digital volunteerism approaches often include uncertainty about accuracy, fear of liability, inability to translate research into operational decision-making, and policy limitations on gathering and managing data. Prior to the workshop, many in the formal response community assumed that such obstructions are insurmountable and, therefore, that the approaches could not be adopted by the response community. However, it became clear during the workshop that these approaches are already being integrated into disaster response strategies at various scales. From federal agencies to local emergency managers, officials have begun exploring the potential of the technologies available. Stories of success and failure were common, but out of both came policy, research, and technological implications. Panelists shared strategies to overcome barriers where it is appropriate, but resisted change in areas where policy barriers serve a meaningful purpose in the new technological environment.

…Workshop participants identified the following activities as some of the more urgent research priorities:

  • Creating durable workflows to connect the information needs of on-the-ground responders, local and federal government decision-makers, and researchers, allowing each group to benefit from collaboration;
  • Developing methods and processes to quickly validate and verify crowdsourced data;
  • Establishing best practices for integrating crowdsourced and citizen-generated data with authoritative datasets, while also streamlining this integration;
  • Deciding on the criteria for “good” policies and determining which policies need to be adapted or established, in addition to developing ways for agencies to anticipate rapid technological change;
  • Determining where government agencies can effectively leverage social networking, crowdsourcing, and other innovations to augment existing information or intelligence and improve decision-making (and determining where it is not appropriate).

Social Pressure: Can it work for Disaster Preparedness?

Post by: Kim Stephens

medium_3955644975In this post I examine what social media, emergency preparedness and get-out the vote messaging have in common–it seems like a stretch, I know!

Every September is National Preparedness Month and the typical information campaign revolves around getting people to understand their risks, make a plan, and get a kit.  But, measuring whether or not people have actually changed their behavior is the tricky part. On October 1 how will we know if people are more prepared for the hazards they face?

In terms of benchmarks, an often cited American Red Cross survey in 2008 found that only one in ten American households had accomplished these tasks. Research in this area also reveals interesting demographics regarding who is more likely to take these steps (e.g. homeowners vs renters, older adults vs those younger than 34, etc.) and why people prepare or not. There are many barriers to disaster preparedness, each with implications for messaging, but it is somewhat common knowledge that risk perception is dependent upon both how the information is communicated (Mileti and Sorensen, 1990) and how it is interpreted through social interactions (Kirschenbaum, 1992).

Can Information Shared on Social Networks Influence Behavior?

If social interactions play such an important role in how people make decisions, then Fairfax County Office of Emergency Management is on the right track. They are experimenting with the social platform ThunderClap, which was specifically designed to influence people via their social connections about a product, idea or movement. The “about” tab states:

Thunderclap is the first-ever crowdspeaking platform that helps people be heard by saying something together. It allows a single message to be mass-shared, flash mob-style, so it rises above the noise of your social networks. By boosting the signal at the same time, Thunderclap helps a single person create action and change like never before.

Fairfax County’s Thunderclap involves accomplishing 30 Easy Emergency Prep Ideas in 30 Days. Participants agree to allow a pre-scripted message appear on their Twitter, Facebook or Tumblr timeline on September 9th advertising the fact that they are doing one, some or all of these preparedness activities.  The platform does have a few idiosyncrasies:

  •  If the County does not reach their goal of 100 supporters then the message is not delivered–at least not on this platform. Talk about an incentive structure!
  • The tool can be a bit confusing. I had to read and re-read what they wanted me to do until I finally realized that I didn’t have to post–that it would be done for me. Although I had no problem with them posting on my behalf, this might cause concern for others.
  • Making a pledge to do a preparedness activity is not the same as actually doing the deed, so although this platform is quite cool–it does not eliminate the problem of actually measuring behavior change, other methods have to used for that purpose.

However, with that being said, the potential to amplify the message and reach a huge audience with this model is immense, since it is based on people’s existing social connections.  For instance, if two people sign up to blast the message to their Facebook friends the reach isn’t 2–it is 300! (The average number of connections is 150.)

Does this work?

031110_votedThe impact of Fairfax County’s Thunderclap might not be known anytime soon, however, quantitative analysis of the 2012 “I  voted” virtual campaign does speak to the potential significance.

On the day of  the 2012 election, for the first time, people could display their civic engagement on their Facebook page with an “I Voted Today” virtual sticker. Researchers wanted to know if this display elicited an “Oh–I need to go do that!” type of response. Apparently, it did. Techcrunch reported the findings:

The first large-scale experimental research on the political influence of social networks finds that Facebook quadruples the power of get-out-the-vote messages. While the single-message study produced a moderately successful boost in turnout (a 2.2% increase in verified votes), the most important finding was that 80% of the study’s impact came from “social contagion,” users sharing messages with friends who would otherwise never have seen it. This is the first definitive proof that social networks, as opposed to television or radio, have uniquely powerful political benefits.

Published in the latest edition of the prestigious science journal, Nature, the 61 million participant study randomly assigned all Facebook users over 18-years-old to see an “I Voted” counter at the top of their newsfeed with the number of total users who had voted on Nov 2nd, which had a link for more information about local polling places. Turnout was verified from a database of public voting records. Interestingly, the 3-pronged experiment displayed two types of “I Voted” messages, one with pictures of friends underneath and one without. Those who did not see pictures of their friends were barely affected by the message at all, “which raises doubts about the effectiveness of information-only appeals to vote in this context,” surmise the authors.

Although voting is a somewhat easier task than doing 30 separate preparedness activities, this research does shed some light on how social sharing can help influence desirable behaviors. Let’s hope people will see these posts and think–I should do that too. Best case, they actually do!

Related articles

Aggregated Social Postings: FEMA and the NCR Social Hubs

Post by: Kim Stephens

FEMA consumed the majority of the Social Media and Emergency Management conversation on Twitter yesterday with their announcement of an update to their mobile application allowing people to post images of damage after a disaster: read more on Mashable.  Another interesting development–yet, much less discussed–was the announcement of their new “Social Hub” a feature on the FEMA mobile website.

photo 1

The Social Hub, as indicated by FEMA staff member Jason Lindy, pulls in Tweets from official or trusted sources and organizes them by topic. The site can be viewed on the desktop but has a better user experience on a mobile device, the intended platform.

A Visual JIC

This new feature is a great addition to  FEMA’s social presence since it allows for a “one-stop shop” of information from all  response partners (see the screen capture on the right). I think it is also a visual demonstration of how each organization and government agency should continue to post content relevant to their “lane” to the audience they have already built. The “Social Hub” aggregates that content and  literally puts everyone on the same page. The site can also help community members find relevant voices: when viewing the content  they will clearly see information provided not only by FEMA headquarters and regional offices, but probably even more importantly, from local officials.

National Capital Region

FEMA is not the only organization that has realized the value of having a Social Hub. The National Capital Region also has a News and Information Page that provides a similar feature–including alerts from partner agencies throughout the region.  The page highlights and provides  links to four main content areas: Emergency Alerts, Weather, Traffic, and Utility information.

ncrBy building the page they recognize that the public might not define “emergency” the same way that Emergency Management officials do. Large traffic incidents, poor road conditions and bad weather can be an emergency for an individual. Another great feature is that the links are not simply provided but the content is pulled into the site, also making it a one-stop shop for information.

Although the public can view official content directly on social networks by sorting information based on key words–I think these aggregated pages provide a valuable service. If you know of any similar sites, let me know!

#CrisisMapping for Recovery: Crisis Clean Up–A Collaboration Tool

Post by: Kim Stephens

medium_8179611271A truism in emergency management is that after a disaster thousands of people want to volunteer–the more high profile the event the more show up, sometimes creating a second disaster. Having a system to organize these altruistic individuals is critical.  As one researcher states: “…the effectiveness of volunteerism depends highly upon how well volunteers and voluntary groups and organizations are coordinated.  In this sense, having vast numbers of people and supplies frequently pose serious challenges for emergency management.”  Coordination, in turn, depends on clear, consistent, and timely communications (FEMA). But how is this done effectively?

The Problem

Aaron Titus, a member of Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters, knows the ends and outs of volunteer coordination all too well. The faith-based group he is associated with can mobilize thousands of people–ready, willing, and able to work. In the days after Hurricane Sandy, that is exactly what happened: Aaron faced a veritable army of over 20,000 volunteers who needed to complete thousands of tasks across a large geographic area. How could he provide “clear, consistent, and timely communications” as well as a method to determine, track and record what everyone was doing? And…what about all of the other non-spontaneous organizations that also showed up to help?

medium_8236682972Coordinating not only what his own group was doing, but also ensuring that they were not duplicating efforts or leaving out survivors who needed assistance, was a problem that seemed insurmountable. BUT he had a secret weapon. During the southern New Jersey “derecho” storms of July, 2012 he had used  the little programming knowledge he had to sort out a simple, yet brilliant, software solution. With a  job as big as Sandy, he enlisted the help of other developers, including Jeremy Pack, to create a more robust version of that solution that ended up being utilized by more than 100 organizations.

The Tool

What Aaron created, essentially, was a work-order-system/Crisis Map. The system has the following basic components (see an example map here).

  • Intake: An online intake request/assessment form is made available to 2-1-1. This enables the 2-1-1 operator to input information (as non-personally identifiable, as possible) about where the work needs to be done, who is requesting, and what is being requested. These forms are customizable–for instance, if a disaster hit an area with a large population of non-English speakers, a field for “language spoken” could be added.
  • ccuLegendTracking: A case number is generated for each request and the form syncs to a map–automated fields are included to alleviate confusion, for instance,  the county-field is automated. Whether or not the work is on private or public property is also noted–which is VERY important.  Communities need to keep track of all public volunteer work in order to count this against FEMA’s public assistance contribution requirements.
  • Categorization: The software includes categories and codes for the work order request based on completion and type. Regarding completion,  a red icon indicates work is “unassigned,” yellow means “claimed,” green is “completed,” and grey is “out of scope.” There are two categories of work indicated: flood damage or tree/wind damage. This distinction is made because some organizations do not let volunteers operate chain saws.
  • Assignments:  Affiliated organizations, as well as organizations that can prove they are legitimate, are allowed to access the map in order to claim work and record completed work. By claiming work, the group essentially says, “We can do this one.”
  • Stop-Gaps: The system has features that prevent the same request from being recorded more than once. When the 2-1-1 operator starts to enter a name or address a field pops up listing all similar entries.
  • Updates: The volunteers doing the work can update the status on the software system, which is seen by the 2-1-1 operator. If someone calls back to 2-1-1 asking about the status,  the operator can see if a group (as well as which group) has claimed the work.
  • Reporting: 2-1-1 staff can generate summary reports about the work requested and completed to provide to local or state emergency management officials.

*****In response to a few questions on Twitter, there’s one point of clarification. The ability to sign-up for the tool is available to any organization participating in recovery, including 2-1-1.

Unique Solution

There are a couple of things about this  volunteer-work-order system that are unique. For one, no group is “assigned” tasks or even a geographic area–as is often done using a grid technique. They can choose what, when and where to work on their own. Also, even though the system is online, the privacy of the requestor is protected–only those groups that have been granted access can see all of the detailed information: the public-facing maps on the Crisis Clean Up website do not include homeowners names, addresses or phone numbers–see example below.

I also like that this system is integrated into the existing government partnership with United Way’s 2-1-1. A lot of State and local communities have started to use 2-1-1 to communicate emergency recovery information. For example, officials in New Jersey state “…2-1-1 is a critical communication link between emergency management professionals and the public-at-large. By the very nature of the 2-1-1 system, NJ 2-1-1 is perfectly positioned to respond immediately during times of crisis. It is structured to manage the expected high volume of crisis-related calls and the 2-1-1 staff is trained to direct callers to services most appropriate for their needs.”

ccu2

Sustainability

So how much does this all costs? Unfortunately, it is free for anyone to use. Why  “unfortunately?” Free usually means that the product or the solution is not sustainable–although it is open source. They do have a “donate” button on the website, but I’m guessing their list of contributors is quite small. Aaron and his team work on this software tool as a labor of love–however, I’m sure they would be happy if the Knight Foundation, or another philanthropic organization provided them the necessary cash flow to ensure disaster-impacted communities could have access to this amazing tool. If you are interested in volunteering with them I’m guessing Aaron would be pleased to hear from you–especially if you are a seasoned grant writer! Contact him via Twitter @aarontitus.

Bonus Video:

Volunteer photo 1. Credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/lunaparknyc/8179611271/”>Luna Park Coney Island</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>cc</a&gt;

Volunteer photo 2. Credit: photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/vixwalker/8236682972/”>Vix Walker</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/”>cc</a&gt;

Note: Developer Andy Gimma now co-leads the Crisis Cleanup project, along with Chris Wood.